Ageism refers to the discrimination of people based on age. Alongside stereotyping, it is embedded in the attitudes, assumptions and values of our communities. Older people are regularly treated differently, their decisions are questioned and their human rights are infringed. Assumptions are made about their likes and dislikes, their capacity to work, and their need for ‘protection’ and ‘care’, rather than respect given for individual choice. and needs. Being overprotective of people purely because of their age is stereotyping, ageist and has damaging consequences.
Unfortunately comments about the ‘burden of the ageing population’ and the ‘ageing tsunami’ are common. Statements like these and some of the language we use merely exacerbates ageism. For example, the term ‘vulnerable’ is used to describe older people. A very strong, independent older woman once asked why she was considered ‘vulnerable’. She took offence to the terminology, which indicated she required protection.
It is often believed that after 65 your function (and value) deteriorates. We should not accept this. While eventual decline is inevitable, many people retain (and regain) a high degree of physical function, mental ability and quality of life well past so-called ‘retirement age’. The body is an amazing organ with abilities to regenerate and rehabilitate, if we do suffer a setback.
We need to build communities which are inclusive, where the infrastructure is accessible and appealing and where people of all ages can walk beside each other comfortably, feeling valued and connected. We need to look at our attitudes to ageing and older people. We need to think carefully about the language we use and the messages we send. David Hetherington said recently at an Ageing Symposium, “we need to consider ageing as a natural and lifelong process….not a cliff we fall off when society puts us out to pasture”.