Exploring ageist attitudes and assumptions

It is worth exploring whether you have ageist attitudes and assumptions about your aging parents and older adults in general. Equally important are ways to counter ageism and improve relationships with older adults in our lives.

What is ageism?

Let’s start our exploration with a simple definition from the World Health Organization. Ageism is the stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination against people on the basis of their age.   According to a Canadian research survey, ageism is more tolerated than racism and sexism in Canada.

Older Canadians reported that the most common forms of age discrimination they face are:

  1. Being treated like they have nothing to contribute (38 %)
  2. Being ignored or treated as though they are invisible (41 %)
  3. Assuming that seniors are incompetent (27%)

Ageist attitudes and assumptions are not only tolerated, but are normalized in our conversations. You probably know these examples: forgetting something and calling it a ‘senior’s moment’ (just to be clear, memory loss is not part of normal aging); saying you can’t teach an old dog new tricks (seniors are the the fastest group of internet users).

Uncovering our ageist assumptions

I can think of a couple of exchanges in my family. My niece was talking about a Rihanna concert, and I turned to my mom and proceeded to tell her about Rihanna. I thought I was being considerate, making sure my mom was part of the conversation. She stopped me mid-sentence and reminded me that she wasn’t living under a rock, knew as much about what is going on in the world as I do and was perfectly aware of who Rihanna was. She was quite offended. Ooops! I felt like crawling under that rock.

My brother noticed how much cash mom had in her purse, and he was aghast. He literally scolded her, told her not to do that, adding that even he didn’t carry that kind of cash around in his wallet. My mom reminded my brother how old she was and didn’t need him to tell her what to do. Further, she continued, there wasn’t a chance anyone was going to separate her from her purse! My brother’s message wasn’t really the problem in this exchange. That is, there is some wisdom in not carrying too much cash – the problem, was his approach. He didn’t initiate a conversation, but rather just told her what to do, or more accurately, what not to do. I don’t know for sure but knowing my mom, I suspect she probably increased the amount of cash she carries in her purse!

How to counter ageism

  • It starts with awareness. You may want to do a quick quiz on ageist attitudes.
  • Reflect on your own attitudes about aging. They will be projected on to your parents.
  • Watch your parent’s reactions to what you say and do. These are definite clues.
  • Assume they are competent unless there are real indicators they are not.
  • Avoid making assumptions regarding what your parents want or can do.
  • Remember that older adults value choice and independence.
  • Have open-hearted and honest conversations.
  • If you have children, foster inter-generational relationships. Revera reminds us that ageism is usually rooted in a lack of awareness and understanding of others. Exposure, and spending time with older adults can work to challenge ageist beliefs.

As Ghandi eloquently put it, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”  Even with a societal problem, change begins at the level of the individual. Starting with yourself and your relationship with your parents or some other older adult in your life, what can you do today to start combating ageism?

We would love to hear what you have done or said to counter ageism?

7 thoughts on “Exploring ageist attitudes and assumptions

  1. I am in my 80’s and am astounded by what I can do independently vs. what my Mother at a younger age was like. I’ve been fortunate with my health & have been very tuned into what I needed to do to be stronger as I aged.

    Fortunately my children have not challenged me by insisting I listen to them for my life decisions. Where I have problems is my knowledge of digital technology, but I suppose I’m not alone.

    • Thanks for sharing Eleanor. Your story is an inspiring one. In terms of your comment about problems with knowledge of digital technology, it is really hard to keep up, at any age. And, unless it really serves you, helps you, it may not matter. Thanks again.

  2. For 20 years I taught at a community college. Most of my students were young adults. I loved being around them, and I know I was popular with them too. I had to retire because of disability, and can’t get out very much. I really miss them, and am quite lonely. My children mean well, but are inclined to make decisions for me, and are busy with their families. I will never go into a seniors home, even before COVID 19.

    • Thanks for sharing Bette. I get that adult children are well intentioned, but/and it really is a problem when they make or attempt to make decisions for their parents. It is a subtle (or not to subtle) form of ageism. Thanks again for sharing your story.

  3. I have a son and I am only 68 and he thinks I am very ancient and I feel very young. Anyway I enjoyed your article

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