Carroll County Times
Carroll County Times Opinion

Saunders: Ageism takes many forms in our culture with even the aging guilty of it

The other week, where I live, I overheard two employees talking when one said, “These golden years sure are not golden — I wonder where that expression ever came from.”

I guessed that they were referring to some aches and pains as they were taking a break from their routines. Then I thought about my own reaction to getting older and how I blame my own aches and pains on the aging process and blaming them for not wanting to do certain things anymore. Then I realized that I was feeding into the prejudice of ageism.


Ageism is stereotyping of and discrimination against individuals or groups on the basis of age, particularly prejudice against the aging.

Ageism was coined in 1969 by Dr. Robert Neil Butler, a physician, gerontologist and psychiatrist, who was the first director of the National Institute on Aging doing research on healthy aging and dementias. Butler connected prejudicial attitudes toward older people, old age and the aging process; discriminatory practices against older people; and institutional practices that perpetuate stereotypes about elderly people. His comments were patterned on two other stereotypes and discrimination, namely, sexism and racism.


When we think we cannot do things because of our age, we feed into the prejudice toward the aging process and stigmatize ourselves. Our fear of death and fear of disability are major causes of ageism. Like racism, ageism is often caused by what we don’t understand or what we don’t know or what we fear. People may try to avoid thinking about their own mortality by avoiding associating with older people. The modern trend to want to look younger at any cost could be seen as a coping mechanism for rejecting aging.

Ageist beliefs are commonplace in society. An older person who forgets something or someone’s name is often quick to call it a “senior moment,” and fail to realize the ageism of that phrase. Other phrases such as “second childhood” and “over the hill” are ageist phrases that can lead to the elderly not being taken seriously. Such phrases reveal a benevolent prejudice against the elderly with a tendency to pity them and see them as incompetent, which ultimately leads to treating the elderly as children and talking down to them.

When a caregiver of the elderly says, “Honey, let’s take our medicine,” that person is demeaning the elder by placing him or her in a subservient position like childhood. And when the older person replies, “Whatever you say,” he or she is fostering the childish treatment still further by becoming subservient to that caregiver.

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Being ignored or not taken seriously because of age is as old as the Roman philosopher Seneca’s words in the first century A.D.: “Old age is a disease.”

In fact, people assume that those of us 60 and older have memory or physical impairments caused by age. Even some medical professionals treat older patients by managing a disease rather than pursuing more aggressive treatment options. They may see the disease as a natural process of aging and therefore no reason to attempt to prevent the inevitable decline, perhaps a demonstration of a more benign prejudice toward aging.

We prime-ers don’t want to hear our doctor say, “You’re doing well for your age!” And what exactly does that mean?

This perceived discrimination against the elderly in health care is nothing compared to the age discrimination in hiring and forced retirements because of a more hostile prejudice exhibited by employers. Of course, the bottom line plays a role in not wanting to pay an older, experienced employee when younger employees will command fewer company dollars. Such age discrimination in the workplace has created an “us” against “them” environment while fostering a still greater divide among the generations.

Such ageist beliefs and practices give rise to several questions. Does our culture worship youth and its attributes of physical beauty and strength, and thereby denigrate the elderly by ignoring them or not taking them seriously? Have we as the older generations fostered such a culture by the way we perceive ourselves and project ourselves to others?


McDaniel College Director for the Center for the Study of Aging Dr. Diane Martin held a conference last year on ageist attitudes and their impact on how we perceive aging in our society. She indicated that research suggests that a positive attitude while growing older is correlated with decreased risk of early death. Still further research demonstrates that when older people demonstrate greater independence and control over their lives they are more likely to be healthier, both mentally and physically, than others their age.

So, prime-ers, in the words of Jean Paul, a German Romantic writer, “Live your life and forget your age.”