Discrimination is defined as making an unjust distinction in the treatment of people. Ageism or more specifically jeunism is the preference of young people over older ones that leads to discrimination (Palmore, 2001). If we have a stereotype in our minds of what it means to be old or what older people are like, then we are being ageist and we may, as a result, treat older people in a way that means we are discriminating against them. According to Palmore (2002), we do this at several levels: the cognitive level, the emotional level, and the behavioral level. When we meet a person for the first time we unconsciously draw on a number of preconceptions or stereotypes that shape our thinking and our actions. We make assumptions about the other person based on what they look like, how they dress, and how they speak. We make judgments about what social group they belong to, where they live and what age they are. These assumptions influence how we think, feel and behave towards this other person. If we hold the stereotypical view that old people are forgetful we may treat an old person in a way that reflects this belief. In other words, the stereotype we have of older people, whether it arises from what we think, know, or have experienced, will influence how we behave towards them. There are several ways in which ageism affects the lives of older people: it devalues their social role, upper age limits isolate them from others,and it reduces their status.
According to Palmore (2001), “stereotypes and ageism can be reinforced and reproduced by what we see and hear in our daily lives and can be represented in ageist language”(p.573). The way in which older people are portrayed on television, on the radio, and in newspapers, not only affects older people themselves but also affects the ways in which we, as a society, see them (Palmore, 2001). According to Dail (1988), embarrassing and demeaning stereotypes of older people marginalize or isolate them from mainstream society by “removing signs of effectiveness and worth from the elderly, disposing of them as of no account” (p. 703). As a result of having a stereotypical view of what aging is and what older people are, we, as individuals, can discriminate against them in personal acts. Organizations can discriminate against them via their policies and practices.
According to Kite and Johnson (1988), “Using age limits can affect how we think about age and what we deem to be appropriate for people of different ages” (p.238). Using upper age limits can contribute to the marginalization of seniors (Kite & Johnson, 1988). Some laws discriminate through the use of upper age limits; the Redundancy Payments Act (2003), for example, does not apply to those aged over 66. Many activities and services are no longer available to older people due to upper age limits without any objective justification for their use. Examples include: jury service, membership of State Boards, occupational pension schemes, health/motor insurance, and education and training. Even senior discounts can isolate the elderly. Another impact of upper age limits and negative stereotypes is that people deny that they are aging, internalize this denial, and then reproduce ageism. Older people dissociate themselves from the wider group of old people because they do not see themselves as old (Kite & Johnson, 1988).
According to Palmore (2001), “Research shows that many older people have experienced an ageist event. The most frequent was, ‘I was told a joke that pokes fun at older people’. Others said they ‘were called an insulting name’ or ‘were treated with less dignity and respect’. Some said that people ‘assumed I could not hear well because of my age”(p.574). While older people may be aware of being seen as old, they may be uncertain about making claims that they are actively discriminated against because of their age. One explanation for this is that age discrimination can be obscure, subtle and may be difficult to perceive. Marginalization is very often the result of discrimination, as is the case with the forced retirement from work of people over the age of 65 (Palmore, 2001). Forcing people to leave the workforce at a certain age endorses the exclusion of a group from the workforce and from earning money. This can debase ‘their status in the eyes of their juniors, and above all has devalued them in their own estimation of themselves’ (Palmore, 2001). Under-representation of older people at local and global levels and lack of positive steps to enable older people to participate fully in social, economic and political activities also results in a reduced status (Palmore, 2001).
According to Chasteen and Schwarz(2002), “An important point to consider is those that write off the elderly are also writing off themselves” (p.547). We are all getting older and most of us will eventually turn 65 and become seniors ourselves. Do we treat seniors the way we want to be treated? Do we show them the respect and understanding they deserve? Ageism is no different than any other form of discrimination. It is very damaging! Yet, it is commonplace in our society. It is easily seen in the way the elderly are portrayed in the media. If any other group of people were portrayed the way seniors are, there would be outrage. A movement would rise up to crush any network willing to show such things. This has not happened yet, partly due to the fact that many seniors are fearful of the stigma placed on seniors and are not willing to accept the fact that they are seniors. Ageism is serious! There are several ways in which ageism affects the lives of older people: it devalues their social role, upper age limits isolate them from others,and it reduces their status.
Chasteen, A. L., Schwarz, N., & Park, D. C. (2002). The activation of aging stereotypes in younger and older adults. Journals of Gerontology: Series B. Psychological Sciences, 57, 540–547.
Dail, P. W. (1988). Prime-time television portrayals of older adults in the context of family life. Gerontologist, 28, 700–706.
Kite, M. E., & Johnson, B. T. (1988). Attitudes toward older and younger adults: A meta-analysis. Psychology and Aging, 3, 233–244.
Palmore, E. (2001). The ageism survey: First findings. The Gerontologist, 41(5), 572-575.
Palmore, E. (2004). Research note: Ageism in canada and the united states. Journal of Cross-Cultural Gerontology, 19(1), 41-46.