Ageism: Across the Lifespan and Everywhere

I recently signed up for news alerts related to aging and ageism and what I discovered wasn’t unexpected. The narrative about the physical and mental decline associated with aging is deeply embedded in American culture. How we feel about getting older shapes our views on an individual’s relevance, standards of ability, beauty, and health, and concepts of self-worth.

The anti-ageism and pro-aging movements have gained momentum over the years. Consider the excellent work of This Chair Rocks, and the vast array of tools, resources, and campaign materials of many of the field’s leading thinkers available at the Old School Anti-Ageism Clearinghouse. The United Nations has set forth the UN Decade of Healthy Aging (2021-2030), an initiative that that brings together governments, civil society, international agencies, professionals, academia, the media, and the private sector to improve the lives of older people, their families, and the communities in which they live. The initiative aims to address four areas of action: age-friendly environments, combatting ageism, integrated care, and long-term care.

As part of the UN Decade of Healthy Ageing (2021-2030), the World Health Organization (WHO) recently launched the Global Campaign to Combat Ageism. Pairing compelling graphics and videos with direct, concise talking points about the pervasiveness and impacts of ageism, this bold campaign aims to change how we all think, feel, and act towards age and aging. In an accompanying Global Report on Ageism, WHO, the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, and the United Nations Population Fund outline how ageism affects us all across the lifespan—operating within our institutions, our interactions with others, and ourselves—and offer strategies for challenging and dismantling ageism.

Across the Lifespan and Everywhere

Institutional ageism may be defined as the laws, rules, social norms, policies, and practices of institutions that unfairly restrict opportunities and systematically disadvantage individuals because of their age.[1] COVID-19, for example, brought into focus health care inequities[2][3][4] that have long existed in our country and elevated discussions of ethical considerations regarding older adults and the allocation of health and emergency resources.

At the beginning of the pandemic, nursing homes, long term care facilities, and senior living facilities prohibited access for anyone not deemed essential, including family members, ombudsman, advocates, and adult protective services. The measures were in place to protect residents and residential staff from increased risk of infection, but they also left many older adults isolated and lonely with little or no access to mental and physical supports.

The Global Report on Ageism also delves into ageism in the context of the legal system, the media and social media, the workplace, housing, technology, financial institutions, natural disasters and conflict-related emergency response, statistics and data collection, and education. Due to space constraints here, I’m not able to summarize all their findings, so I encourage you to review the report for a full picture of how far-reaching and well-documented institutional ageism is.

Whether intentional or not, institutional ageism can legitimize the exclusion of people from power and influence, reinforcing an asymmetric power structure that is based on age and age-associated assumptions.[5]

Interpersonal ageism occurs within interactions between two or more individuals. Examples include using age to devalue an individual’s work (“that’s pretty good for someone their age”), to discredit someone’s capacity (“they’re too young to understand”; “they’re old and just confused”), or to patronize or disrespect them (“you’ll grow out of it”; “you must be having a senior moment”). Interpersonal ageism may also show up in the way we communicate (speaking louder, slower, and/or in simpler terms) and how we interact (overcompensating for the individual’s presumed needs; avoiding an individual altogether).

Self-directed ageism is an internalized bias and the belief that you shouldn’t or couldn’t do something based on your own age (“I’m too old to start a new career”; “I’m too young, they won’t take me seriously”). This internalized ageism damages individual self-worth. It may also heighten fears of growing older and create doubt about the benefits of aging.

Of course, institutional, interpersonal, and self-directed ageism are not mutually-exclusive. All these forms of ageism can intersect with and compound other forms of discrimination and prejudice like ableism, classism, homophobia, lookism, racism, sexism, and transphobia.

The Impact of Ageism

Like other -isms, ageism segregates and reinforces inequalities between groups. In contrast to other -isms, ageism affects everyone at different stages in their lives. “Ageism is associated with a shorter lifespan, poorer physical and mental health, slower recovery from disability and cognitive decline. Ageism reduces older people’s quality of life, increases their social isolation and loneliness (both of which are associated with serious health problems), restricts their ability to express their sexuality and may increase the risk of violence and abuse against older people. Ageism can also reduce younger people’s commitment to the organization they work for. For individuals, ageism contributes to poverty and financial insecurity in older age, and one recent estimate shows that ageism costs society billions of dollars.”[6]

Through my work at the National Clearinghouse on Abuse in Later Life, I’ve come to align how ageist beliefs create an even more challenging and dangerous landscape for older survivors of abuse. Ageism creates a culture that ignores and tolerates elder abuse and allows abuse of older adults to continue unabated. Age-based ideals regarding how an abuse victim should look and behave can shape the response to a victim disclosing abuse. Too often older adults are not believed when they report abuse because of ageist assumptions about dementia, and/or misconceptions about the dynamics of interpersonal violence, sexual assault, and stalking.

Taking Action

The Global Report on Ageism identifies three key strategies for combatting ageism: policy and law, educational activities, and intergenerational interventions. These strategies aim to reduce barriers between generations and address age-based discrimination. To learn more and find specific examples from around the globe, please check out the Global Report on Ageism.

NCALL works to ensure the dignity, respect, and well-being of older adults.  Addressing and confronting ageism is foundational to this mission. Building on the key strategies put forth by WHO, we offer some steps you can take right now:

  • Advocate for and help enact policies and laws to address discrimination and inequality on the basis of age.
  • Commit to examining and challenging ageist attitudes on the micro (individual/family), meso (organization/ community), and macro (government/societal) levels.
  • Create awareness of the diversity and complexity of experiences across the lifespan and honor the full life journey. Being inclusive means offering representations of all people of all ages.
  • Promote positive perceptions of aging. Evidence reveals that older adults with positive self-perceptions of aging live 7.5 years longer than their peers with less positive self-perceptions of aging.[7]
  • Lift up the voices of older adults and celebrate their stories and resilience.
  • Amplify accurate information and call out stereotypical examples of aging.
  • Support and foster cross-generational communities where people across the lifespan are afforded equitable opportunities and can thrive together.

As we begin the countdown to June 15—World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD)—NCALL will dive deeper into the role of ageism in the context of elder abuse. Next, my colleague, Ann Laatsch, will discuss this topic and unveil some new resources for WEAAD 2021. Please stay tuned!

With gratitude for your interest and support in combatting ageism,


Sara Mayer, M.A., Communications Coordinator,  National Clearinghouse on Abuse in Later Life (NCALL)

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