The term ageism, coined in 1968 by psychiatrist and pioneering gerontologist, Dr. Robert N. Butler, refers to prejudice against the elderly.
“Ageism reflects a deep seated uneasiness…a personal revulsion to and distaste for growing old, disease, disability, and fear of powerlessness, uselessness, and death,” Dr. Butler said.
What particularly exasperated Dr. Butler was the reality that chronological age and failing cognitive or physical function are not necessarily correlated. He pointed out many elderly are old in calendar years, but young in task performance.
His own life was a perfect example of “young in function.” Dr. Butler, who was the first Director of The National Institute of Aging, actively worked until three days before his death at the age of 83 on July 7, 2010.
The American Psychological Association states ageism includes “prejudicial attitudes, discriminatory practices or institutional policies and practices that perpetuate stereotypical beliefs.” These stereotypes are so widespread in our society they are not often challenged — they have become normalized beliefs.
Professor Donna Wilson puts it this way: “We don’t even recognize how prevalent it is and how impactful it is. A lot of societies are really youth-oriented now and don’t respect or care about older people.”
During the recent pandemic, examples of hostility toward elders could be found on a daily basis in the media, especially social media. The hashtag “Boomer Remover” was a particularly ugly case in point. As was “Silver Tsunami,” an appellation describing the upcoming wave of aging Baby Boomers who will soak social resources as they stumble toward death.
It’s certainly true our population is aging — 10,000 people a day in the United States turn 65, and by 2030 all the surviving Boomers (70 million or so) will be at least that age. But are the majority of those seniors going to be enfeebled, dependent scourges who drain more than they contribute? Not by a long shot.
Here is a fact check of some of the leading myths about old age:
MYTH: Senility and Alzheimer’s Disease are inevitable.
Not true. 11.1% of the population has Alzheimer’s. Studies show up to 40% have mild “forgetfulness,” but more than half of those over 85 years of age have normal cognitive ability. The Baby Boomers are among the healthiest and most educated population block in history.
MYTH: All older people fall apart.
In his book, The Art and Science of Aging Well: A Physician’s Guide to Healthy Body, Mind and Spirit, Dr. Mark Williams addresses this myth: “Everybody ages differently,” he says. Some factors, such as smoking, speed up aging. If you follow a healthy lifestyle, Williams asserts, “You won’t be able to run the 100-yard dash at 65 as fast as you did at 16, but in most ways, you’ll be doing fine.”
MYTH: The elderly cannot be trusted to make decisions.
The exact opposite is frequently true. Many seniors possess “crystallized intelligence,” a way of thinking that is a direct result of length and depth of experience. Discovered by psychologist Raymond Cattell when he was researching IQ tests in the early 1960’s, it is the recalling of stored knowledge accumulated over the years — knowledge that allows for informed interpretation of current circumstances. Crystallized intelligence may explain why new studies suggest older people adapted so well to turmoil during the COVID-19 crisis.
MYTH: Older people don’t pull their weight financially.
In fact, the elderly are the wealthiest age group on the planet. The 750 million seniors spent
$8.7 trillion dollars in 2020. There is definitely a “senior economy,” one which is expected to undergo even more robust expansion in the next decade. Additionally, through voluminous hours of volunteer work (25% seniors in this country participate in charitable causes), the elderly provide social services which otherwise might be very costly or would not be completed, at all.
ASSORTED OTHER MYTHS: The aged cannot drive, they are cranky, and they are old dogs who can’t learn new tricks.
All false. Only 14% of those over 65 have driving problems. As far as crabbiness goes, this is often true among those who were surly when they were young — anger doesn’t age discriminate. As for old dogs, history is full of examples of creativity blooming at an advanced age.
This hardly scratches the surface of repugnant rhetoric about our elderly. The bottom line is these stereotypes are palpably harmful. For seniors, it engenders stress, depression, and higher risk for heart disease. For society as a whole, it creates more divisiveness in a culture already bitterly split.
Ageism, according to researcher Becca Levy, Ph.D., “homogenizes older people as if they are the same and not recognizing variation.” For everyone else, Levy says it fosters a harmful “us vs them” mindset.
Ironically, ageism fails to take into account this fundamental truth: we are all in the same boat, those who taunt today will be the taunted tomorrow. In a quick wink of time, youth turns to autumn.
H. Auden put it well: “O, let not Time deceive you. You cannot conquer Time…Time watches from the shadow.”