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  • Hal Swerissen


Updated: Mar 19, 2021

In this post I have summarised my notes from a recent presentation on ageism that was part of a series of talks on ageing.

There are going to be more older people

Today 16 percent of the population is 65 or older - around 3.8 million people and growing. Around half of children born today can expect to live into their 80s - up from around 50 years in 1900. Around 20 percent Australians (5.7 million) are expected to be 65 or older by 2030.

As more people reach older age, our attitudes, expectations, behaviours and policies about ageing come under more scrutiny. And there are problems that need to be addressed.

Some are truly disgraceful as we have seen in aged care. People being tied up, drugged, underfed, abused, beaten, neglected, isolated, bored and lonely. Others are much more subtle - the discriminatory view we have of ageing in our a society.

This is ageism - when we discriminate negatively against people because of their age. Ageism against older people has several parts.

Older people are incompetent, incapable and out of date

Discriminatory attitudes and beliefs about older people are everywhere. Older people are thought of as incompetent, incapable, out of date.

Some discriminatory attitudes are well meaning - older people need care and protection and other people to make decisions for them .Think of this as 'elderism' or benevolent ageism.

Benevolence sounds ok, but the price you pay is that you have go along with the attitudes and beliefs that underpin it - that you get special treatment just because of your age. Think of the poor having to be grateful for charity.

In reality, most older people are healthy, competent, and active and want to make decisions for themselves. This is true even when people develop illness and disabilities.

It's ok to ignore older people's decisions, preferences and opinions

Attitudes and beliefs lead to discriminatory behaviour. Older people's decisions, preferences and opinions are ignored, 'managed', and discounted. People are infantilised and patronised ('there, there dear').

Some actions are intended positively (standing up on public transport for someone with grey hair). Some are thoughtless (ignoring older people at the counter in shops). Some are abusive as we have seen in nursing homes, but that happens in families too. Elder abuse is a serious problem.

Aged based policy is just fine

More insidiously, ageism can be systemic. The rules we live by can discriminate against older people in employment, housing, social support systems and so on. Retirement is still encouraged and sometimes required (see high court judges) for older people. Loans and insurance are harder to get for older people.

There are long waiting times and poor quality aged care services, often for older people with high levels of need. Older people are separated into villages, residential care facilities (nursing homes), day programs, and senior citizen's programs. Older people are isolated from society rather than integrated.

Ageism also has an impact on older people themselves. People can internalise discriminatory attitudes and beliefs. The anti ageing industry of creams, lotions, potions, surgery, injections and pills wouldn't survive if we all thought it was perfectly alright to look older.

Needs not age

Of course it is true that ageing is associated with increased likelihood of illness, disability and ultimately death. But shouldn't services, support and care be determined by need, not simply age?

In some ways it might be better if we did away with the idea of aged care services and just had needs based housing, disability, health, income support and community services for all adults, regardless of age.

Like discrimination against people on the basis of their sex, gender, disability or race, ageism is about rights and power. Some groups have more power - more assets, income, decision making, access, privileges and so on - because of the group they belong too, others have less power.

It is also true that not all ageism is equal. How ageism affects you depends on who you are and where you are. On the whole, older women, indigenous people, people with less education and income experience more age discrimination than older wealthy, white men. This is the problem of double or triple disadvantage.

Ageism is not yet a political issue, but it might become one

So far, ageism has not yet hit the headlines in the same way as racism and sexism. There haven't been many marches or demonstrations against ageism.

Most outrage has been about poor quality care in nursing home. Usually benevolent ageism has won the day - 'isn't it terrible that those poor, elderly people have been abused'. The solution quickly becomes more and better nursing home care rather than fighting for older people's rights.

No one is arguing poor quality care is ok. But contrast the response to abuses in aged care with the way the disability movement has fought against discrimination.

We accept that people with disabilities have rights, that they should be presented positively in the media, they should have employment, housing, social and recreational choices and opportunities. We have made discrimination against people with disabilities unlawful.

It is now utterly unacceptable to segregate and warehouse people with disabilities in large scale institutions. But 'big box' nursing homes are still ok - even encouraged by funding policy.

Advocacy for older people is pale and wan when compared to other movements to combat discrimination. Much of what is done continues to reinforce benevolent ageism. Older people's advocacy organisations like the Council on the Ageing, National Seniors and the Older Person's Advocacy Network could take a leaf out of the disability book.

But there is hope. Older people are now generally healthier, wealthier and better educated than they were in the past and there are more of them. The baby boomers have had a major impact on cultural, social and political life throughout their lives. So it maybe that as they reach older age, the boomers will fight for their rights.

The story needs to change

To combat ageism, the underlying story needs to change. The current story is that it's great that we are living longer, but ageing is a huge burden. Pensions, superannuation, aged care, healthcare will send society broke. There won't be enough carers to look after older people. The economy will come a standstill because of older people.

Government, society in general, older people and even the organisations that represent them believe this story. Older people are seen through the lens of dependency, deficit and illness. They are isolated, excluded and marginalised into an older person's world.

To change the story, a good place to start is to fight for rights based policy for older people. Older people have a right a pursue their goals and aspirations without discrimination. They should expect their choices and preferences to be respected and they should be treated with dignity. But having rights is not enough.

Policies, practices and behaviour will have to change so that instead of excluding and marginalising older people, they have opportunities to participate in families, communities, work and the ongoing development of Australian society.

The story needs to change from one of deficit and burden to one of rights, strengths, participation and contribution.

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