What is it about older people that seems to inspire such disdain? The list of negative stereotypes attributed seems endless. A quick Google search on “ageing stereotypes” turned up the following:
Older people are set in their ways
Older people don’t need or want close relationships
Older people don’t contribute to society
Older people have memory problems
Older people don’t know what’s best for them
Older people are sexless . . . cranky . . . inflexible . . . senile
Old people smell bad
It sounds just awful. And wrong.
The Harm of Ageism
Just like racism and sexism, ageism has overt and harmful effects to those who are stereotyped. It also has the insidious effect of being harmful by being internalized by those who are aging, which means by everyone. By living in a society where ageism is prevalent, people grow up believing the stereotypes when young – and those beliefs don’t automatically disappear when reaching one’s 65th or 75th or 85th birthday. Ageism has been called prejudice against one’s feared future self. Ageism tells us that as we grow older we will inevitably decline and that being old will become how we see ourselves. We will no longer be productive or romantic or clever, we will just be old.
Ageism doesn’t just end with disdain. It’s one thing to be viewed at a distance as senile and odd but harmless, and quite another to be seen as burdensome and harmful. As the baby boomers have aged and are now beginning to collect Social Security, the alarm has sounded on the impending doom this generation will bring. The 74 million strong boomers have been described as an “age quake,” and a “demographic time bomb.” A “tsunami” of elders will bankrupt Medicare and Social Security leaving nothing but debt for the Gen Xers and Millennials to deal with.
This is gerontophobia – the irrational fear of aging. Do we have challenges in the changing demographics we’ll face in the next 10 – 20 – 30 years? Of course. We’ve faced similar demographic challenges in the past. I’m in my early 60s and well remember my 1st-grade class in 1959 with 38 students. But generally we valued our children and did our best to provide.
I hope we learn to discard the harmful stereotypes of ageism and embrace the value of all of us no matter what generation we have been assigned. Fearing our future self is no way to live our present lives.