How to stop ageism

Ageism is the most socially acceptable prejudice on the planet, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination toward people because of their age is more accepted than racism or sexism.

But to date, no one has established whether interventions that claim to change ageist attitudes actually work.

Researchers from Cornell University have shown, for the first time, that it is possible to reduce ageist attitudes, prejudices and stereotypes.

Programs that foster intergenerational contact, combined with education about the ageing process and its misconceptions, worked best at reducing ageist attitudes, according to their study.

“The most surprising thing was how well some of these programs worked,” said co-author and gerontologist Professor Karl Pillemer.

The WHO, which recruited the Cornell-led team to do the study, will use the research to inform its global anti-ageism strategy.

“If we teach people more about ageing – if they’re less frightened of it, less negative about it and less uncomfortable interacting with older people – that helps,” Prof. Pillemer said.

“If we get them into contact with older people, where they’re getting to know each other, that also helps. And if you put those two things together, we found that works best of all.”

The interventions had the greatest impact on women, teens and young adults, according to the study.

Society is rife with ageist attitudes, from television and movies depicting older people as buffoons with memory problems, to workplace discrimination where older people are seen as unable to keep up with technology.

“People believe that older people are mentally deficient, that they are less likely to be competent,” Prof. Pillemer said.

These macro- and micro-aggressions can have serious negative effects on the mental and physical health of older people.

Physicians with ageist attitudes may misdiagnose their older patients, for example, or exclude them from particular treatments.

Moreover, older people tend to adopt society’s negative attitudes toward ageing – and those who do are more likely to experience psychological distress and physical illness. They even die 7.5 years sooner on average than those who have a more positive attitude about ageing, according to research by Yale psychologist Becca Levy, another member of the WHO ageism project.

“Everybody, if they’re lucky enough, is going to become an older person,” Prof. Pillemer said. “Ageism eventually affects every member of a society.”

The researchers analysed 63 studies, conducted between 1976 and 2018, with a total of 6124 participants. The studies evaluated three types of interventions that aimed to curb ageism: education, intergenerational contact, and a combination of the two.

The most successful programs combined both education and intergenerational contact, said lead author David Burnes of the University of Toronto.

“When both components are in place, you’re helping people see ageing in a more realistic and positive way,” he said, “and you’re increasing familiarity, breaking down some of those misconceptions that may exist between two different age groups.”

Importantly, Prof. Pillemer said, these interventions are both low-cost and easy to replicate.

“Volunteer organisations and after-school programs should think about involving some of these methods to reduce ageist attitudes,” he said, “because they are effective and easy to implement.”

The WHO will use the research to create an upcoming global report on ageism.

In Australia, the EveryAGE Counts campaign is a national advocacy campaign aimed at shifting dominant negative social norms about ageing and older people and positively influencing the way all Australians think about ageing and older people.

Launched in October 2018, the campaign’s vision is a society where every person is valued, connected and respected, regardless of age and functional health.

Campaign co-chair Robert Tickner said addressing ageism – especially in the workforce – is an issue for all Australians.

“Every Australian has the right to participate equally in our communities, to be valued and heard at every age. The very challenging goal of the EveryAGE Counts campaign is to shift destructive and deeply entrenched social norms that are currently limiting and preventing this equal participation,” said Mr Tickner.

“If we want current and future generations to have the chance to age well – and our whole society to benefit from the full participation of all its citizens, including older people – it is essential that we adequately address the issue of ageism.”

Have you ever been a victim of ageism? What happened in your situation? Should more be done to combat ageism?

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