Ageism is a hot topic of discussion.
Ageism (Butler, 1969) refers to the negative attitudes, stereotypes, and behaviors directed toward older adults based solely on their perceived age. (Source: Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.)
Since the 1960s, the definition of ageism has expanded. The Stanford Social Innovation Review in 2019 stated that “ageism can be directed at both older adults and younger adults/youth” and can “affect self-determination, free choice, and dependency.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) today defines ageism as “the stereotypes (how we think), prejudice (how we feel) and discrimination (how we act) towards others or oneself based on age.”
A joint report released in March 2021 by the WHO, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) and United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) “calls for urgent action to combat ageism and better measurement and reporting to expose ageism for what it is – an insidious scourge on society.”
Last summer, the Canadian Federal Government’s Federal, Provincial and Territorial Ministers Responsible for Seniors’ Forum, or the FPT Seniors Forum, issued a national call to action by launching an ageism consultation to understand the impact of ageism, specifically towards older adults, with the intention to address the issue more fully.
“Ageism is an issue whose time has come,” says April Struthers, BC CRN’s Regional Mentor for the Sunshine Coast, Mentor Liaison of the organization’s annual Community Response Network (CRN) evaluation, and Program Development Lead. “Unlike oppression from racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, anti-Semitism, and ableism, ageism affects everyone. It’s a universal issue: no one can escape aging.”
The Cost of Ageism
A person becomes significantly more oppressed by ageism if they are already racialized, marginalized, a person with disabilities, and/or are in a lower-income household. In addition to experiencing limitations, disadvantages, or disapproval, they are more at risk of abuse from individuals, institutions, or cultural practices.
In the context of seniors and care, older people face situations of great vulnerability driven by the underfunding of services, ageist attitudes, and the lack of training and overburdening of care professionals. Ageism acts as the type of prejudice that both justify abusive behaviour against older people and leads to overlooking the consequences it has on older people. (Source: ageing-equal.org/ageism-and-abuse )
“The social, economic, and especially health costs of ageism are very high,” says April. “The pandemic played a part in amplifying ageism. For example, COVID-19 was quickly labeled as a disease affecting primarily older people.”
In some communities, youth were also calling the pandemic the “boomer remover”.
According to the National Institute on Ageing:
- 60% of Canadians over the age of 66 report being treated unfairly or differently because of their age.
- 80% of Canadians agree with the statement: “Older adults 75 and older are seen as less important and are more often ignored than younger generations.”
- 51% agree with the statement: “Ageism is the most tolerated social prejudice when compared to gender or race-based discrimination.”
A Community Takes Action
The unceded territories of the Shishalth Nation, also known as Pender Harbour, are located in BC’s Sunshine Coast, which includes the villages of Middlepoint, Madeira Park, Francis Peninsula, Kleindale, Garden Bay, Irvines Landing, and Daniel Point.
Led by the Pender Harbour Health Centre, this seaside community was one of several from across the country that answered the Government of Canada’s call for an ageism consultation. In partnership with the Sunshine Coast CRN, and several local agencies, the team organized a daylong event that included the consultation, ageism education, networking, and socializing.
With less than 3,000 residences spread over a complex water landscape of bays, coves, and over 60 km of shoreline, the main challenge was transportation.
“We worked together to coordinate resources,” April explains. The Health Centre volunteered their bus to pick up and drop off people. The centre’s staff – the director, nurses, and community coordinator – also acted as facilitators for small group work. They also generously extended their lunch program to ensure older adult participants didn’t have to miss a meal or be out of pocket.”
The Sunshine Coast CRN’s longstanding relationship with the Health Centre and the local community coupled with April’s professional background as an established researcher on the topic provided a sense of safety for challenging discussions.
“The consultation itself was quite comprehensive. There were 20 questions and five themes we needed to cover in a very short amount of time,” she says. “Since we knew all have worked with each other many times over the years, we were each versed in one another’s roles and how we needed to work with each other, the participants included.”
Thirty people, including many older adults, participated in the consultation in person. “This is a tremendous response for a geographically dispersed community,” she adds. “By virtue of the people involved, this consultation also adopted a cross-generational approach that is so critical in addressing ageism.”
The federal ageism consultation closed earlier in the Fall with the Pender Harbour communities’ information successfully submitted as part of the country-wide response to the call.
The federal report containing the findings of the national consultation is expected to become available in a few months’ time.
The CRN and Health Centre will deliver a summary of this report to all who participated in the consultation – an example of a best practice in consultations that provides all involved a glimpse of the impact of their collective efforts.
Part of a Larger Provincial Context
The information submitted from the Sunshine Coast CRN and Pender Harbour Health Centre consultation will be added to the data from the BC CRN hosted consultation led by Executive Director Sherry Baker that will provide a provincial perspective on the topic of ageism.
The BC CRN hosted a consultation session that engaged several of the association’s contractors, Board members, and CRN coordinators, along with partner organizations including Seniors First BC and the Council of Senior Citizens Organizations of BC (COSCO).
“The federal consultation on ageism is a significant project that is receiving both interest and participation from every province and territory in Canada,” says Sherry. “We hope it will result in a national strategy on ageism and formal participation on the international stage at the United Nations.”
Becoming Anti-Ageist: A Starting Point
- It starts with you. Check your biases, beliefs, and fears about age and aging.
- Do you seek out different perspectives from different people of different ages?
- Check your local population and the differences in that population.
- Are there stereotypes? What are they? Are they ageist?
- Are they widely accepted? Do you accept them?
- Are you inadvertently perpetuating any of these stereotypes?
- Be aware of the language you use and observe what you hear.
- What type of words are you hearing in your conversations?
- What language do you use regularly?
- Is the language demeaning?
- Check and challenge common practices:
- Are there negative media portrayals? Are there portrayals of people that are avoided or excluded?
- Are you observing specific actions or situations that support ageist beliefs? (e.g., understaffing facilities, failure to adapt, rationing resources, etc.)
- Do you find yourself accepting any of these practices as normal?
Written by: Debbie Chow, Links Communication Solutions. Follow Debbie on LinkedIn @debbiechowabc.
Header Photo: Pender Harbour and area residents participate in the ageism consultation conducted by the Sunshine Coast CRN and the Pender Harbour Health Centre earlier in the Fall. Photo Source: A. Struthers.