Ageism in America: A Silent Epidemic Impacting Our Elders

In the heart of American society lies a silent epidemic, one that begins its insidious spread from the tender age of three and continues to cast its shadow well into our twilight years. This is the epidemic of ageism, a deeply entrenched bias that not only affects the self-worth and health of our elders but also has profound economic and societal implications.

The Early Roots of Ageism

Research reveals that age stereotypes are internalized astonishingly early. By the age of three, children are already familiar with age-related stereotypes. These perceptions, often negative, are reinforced throughout their lives, shaping their views and interactions with the elderly.

The Multifaceted Impact of Ageism

Ageism isn’t just about hurt feelings or misconceptions. It intersects with other biases like racism, sexism, and ableism, amplifying their harmful effects. The health implications are startling. Older individuals with a positive self-perception of aging live an average of 7.5 years longer than their counterparts who view aging negatively, according to a recent study by Becca Levy, PhD, a leading researcher on the effects of ageism from Yale University.

But the harm isn’t just personal. Ageism has a broader economic toll. AARP’s recent findings suggest that the U.S. economy lost a staggering $850 billion due to involuntary retirement, underemployment, and unemployment among older workers. Moreover, the World Health Organization reports that ageism added an estimated $63 billion to healthcare costs in just one year.

Ageism in the Spotlight: Media and Healthcare

The media plays a significant role in perpetuating ageist stereotypes. A mere 1.5% of characters on U.S. television are older individuals, often relegated to minor or comedic roles. This portrayal starkly contrasts with the rise of older influencers on platforms like TikTok, who are amassing significant followings and challenging ageist narratives.

Healthcare, a sector that should ideally be free of biases, isn’t immune to ageism. Older adults often find themselves excluded from clinical trials and are less likely to receive preventive care. The demand for geriatricians is set to surge to 30,000 by 2030. Yet, the U.S., with its 7,300 geriatricians, which only 50% practice full-time, is ill-prepared to meet this demand.

A Call to Leaders and Caregivers of Long-Term Care Centers

For leaders and caregivers in long-term care centers, this research is a clarion call. Ageism isn’t just a societal issue; it’s a pressing concern that affects the very individuals under your care.

It’s crucial to challenge and change ageist perceptions within your institutions. This begins with education and awareness, ensuring that staff recognize and counteract their biases. It also involves advocating for better representation of the elderly in media and pushing for more inclusive research in healthcare.

Resources for Leaders and Caregivers of Long-Term Care Centers

Ageism & Culture Advisory Council:

The Ageism & Culture Advisory Council, comprising members of the American Society on Aging, is leading the way, developing anti-ageism resources and championing the recognition of older adults in the arts. Their efforts underscore the importance of a collective approach to tackling ageism.

Age and Ability Inclusion Toolkit for Senior Living

This toolkit has been developed to help guide organizations and individuals toward creating inclusive environments for senior living. Within this toolkit, you will find resources both for individual staff members as well as an organization-wide assessment.

Community Dialogue Guide: Prompting Discussion About Age and Ageism

This practical guide by Leading Age leverages dialogue to prompt community discussion about age and ageism. Unlike debate, dialogue requires that participants listen for meaning by suspending personal opinions. The dialogue process invites participants to grow in understanding and perhaps decide to act together with common goals.

The Story of Reframing Aging: Quick Start Guide

Download or print this colorful, new flyer that tells The Story of Reframing Aging. This handy resource provides a brief overview of why ageism harms all of us, what ageism sounds like, some suggestions for what you can do to confront the injustice of ageism, and a handy Quick Start Guide that underscores the need to choose our words wisely.

Harvard: Project Implicit—Participate in an Implicit Association Test (IAT)

Project Implicit is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization and international collaborative of researchers who are interested in implicit social cognition. The mission of Project Implicit is to educate the public about bias and to provide a “virtual laboratory” for collecting data on the internet. Project Implicit scientists produce high-impact research that forms the basis of our scientific knowledge about bias and disparities. Take an online Implicit Association Test (IAT) to discover and understand underlaying stereotypes or biases that you may experience.


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