Age discrimination or ageism in practice

Age discrimination (ageism) creeps up on us when we aren’t looking. One day, we belong in the mainstream. The next, we older people find ourselves invisible in a grey (or beige) crowd. People describe us, collectively, as a burden.

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As a nurse in aged care and as an advocate for seniors, I saw old people stereotyped and discriminated against because of their age. I worked in Advocare‘s elder abuse prevention program and discovered the victimisation that can occur as a result of age.

A conscious feminist from my mid-twenties, I grew antennae that can sense sexism, which stereotypes and discriminates against women. Often the only action often possible then was to be aware and note it.

In my forties and newly divorced, I completed a Graduate Diploma in Women’s Studies at Curtin University

Wonderful women who lectured in units like Women in Literature and History and the Sociology of the Family enriched my life. I learned about the politics of power, which lead some groups to act towards others as if they are less worthy, less entitled.

Even with my grey hair and wrinkly skin, I didn’t experience age discrimination until a few years ago. I walked faster then, worked more in paid employment, put my hand up for greater engagement in the community and wouldn’t even have considered using a shopping trolley, It’s different now I’ve slowed down a bit.

Now I’m old. I regularly notice age discrimination.

The World Health Organisation defines ageism as

the stereotyping and discrimination against individuals or groups on the basis of their age; ageism can take many forms, including prejudicial attitudes, discriminatory practices, or institutional policies and practices that perpetuate stereotypical beliefs.

Don’t get me started on the double-whammy of sexism and ageism. I hate to think about the burden imposed on people when racism or disability are thrown into the mix.

Here are a few ways age discrimination shows itself every day

  • People talk and write about seniors as if we can’t read, can’t understand and can’t make our own decisions
  • They overlook us when it’s our turn to be served in shops and banks, as if we’ve become strangely invisible.  Perhaps we are no longer valued customers
  • Strangers call us, ‘Dear,’ ‘Sweetie,’ or ‘Honey’
  • Or they call us ‘Granny,’  ‘Grandma,’ ‘Grandpa.’ or ‘Pop’
  • They talk to us as if we can’t comprehend simple concepts. (There should be a word like ‘mansplaining’ to describe this! Rebecca Solnit first used the term ‘mansplaining’ in  a 2008 essay. It describes men explaining concepts to women whether the women need the explanation or not.)
  • Or they act surprised when we say we have a blog or paid employment or do our own housework
  • And don’t understand when we enroll in courses, take up new hobbies or holiday alone
  • Organisations exclude us from their surveys and health initiatives on no grounds but our age.
  • General practitioners dismiss evidence of illness because, they say, our symptoms or test results are ‘normal’ at our age. (I wrote a blog about not being taken seriously when I had shingles. You can read it here.)
  • Doctors prescribe medication we don’t need, and which may harm us.
  • They ask, ‘What do you expect at your age?’ when we tell them about our ailments. (The answer to that question is, always, ‘A better health care professional.’)

Some easy actions  to combat ageism

  • Call the perpetrators on what they are doing as soon as they do it. Say, ‘That’s an ageist thing to say,’ or ”Do you think I’m too old to know what you are doing?’
  • Say, firmly, ‘My name is… . I’d prefer to be called by my name,’ when they use so so-called ‘pet’ names or call you Granny.
  • Tell doctors who don’t understand, ‘Ageing is not a disease, although older people do experience more illness.

8 thoughts on “Age discrimination or ageism in practice

  1. I consciously resist ageism by being joyfully myself. One evening when I had friends to dinner, after dinner, to the music, I started dancing. One of my friends (herself in her sixties) said ‘Groovy Grandma!’. We had an argument about it. Why should I be labelled as a grandma who is groovy because I’m dancing! If anyone speaks or behaves in these terms to me, I call them out on it. Thanks for raising this issue so clearly, Maureen.

    • I really love your phrase, ‘I consciously resist ageism by being joyfully myself,’ Christina. I plan to adopt it from now on as a wonderful strategy to practice on all occasions. I guess that is also why you dress so beautifully, wear hats, paint and enjoy life. Thank you.

  2. So true Maureen. I was recently in Bunnings and was lifting something quite heavy onto a trolley. A woman in her 50’s watching, said “well aren’t you strong!” I then offered to assist her with her heavy load which she declined and turned away!

    • Well done, Lorraine! I love these stories about my friends and the way you deal with ageism. lovely having coffee with you today, too. Thank you.

  3. Excellent post Maureen! A couple of years ago when it was time for the annual flu jab, I was also offered a pneumonia jab, I accepted and was told this will last a lifetime. I commented, “Wow a lifetime, that’s very impressive!” To which the nurse answered “Well, ten years actually!” “Oh, you mean the remainder of my lifetime!” So, according to her I only have eight years left!

    I have hereditary glaucoma that is well controlled. Last year my eye specialist was telling me about the available surgery if things deteriorated, then he commented “Though of course we have to consider life expectancy!”

    We seniors have paid a lifetime of taxes into the NHS and now when we need to reap the benefits we’re repeatedly told by news channels that we are a drain on the system.

    • Hi, Sue, These stories convey very accurately the unconscious (or maybe even conscious) discrimination that we older people face every day. Of course we deserve and should demand the medical treatment that is available to treat medical conditions which will make our lives better.
      As for being a drain on the system, perhaps that will be the topic for a blog post very soon. How dare they! And actually, we know that seniors are not a drain on the system.

  4. A thought-provoking post, Maureen. I hope the world changes rapidly and I don’t experience such disconcerting attitudes! Being realistic, I know I am actually already being ‘ targetted’ as old and it angers me! I react quite sharply, especially considering we are now expected to be self-supporting for longer. And, even if we choose alternative forms of income to full time work, it is just that – choice.
    Hmm, there’s so many aspects one could comment one!!

    • Thank you, Susan. I wouldn’t hold my breath for the world to change very quickly in relation to ageism, sexism or racism, to name a few ways that some people are discriminated against. I guess one way we can individually change the world, just a little, is to call people every time we experience ageism, and to support each other.

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