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What is ageism and why should it be avoided?

Discriminating against people for the mere fact of being older is quite common, but chronological age does not define our abilities or limitations, nor is there a “typical” old age.

Ageism is discrimination based on age. Although it can occur in all age groups, it is the elderly who suffer the most. Under the assumption that all older people are equal, society acts according to certain stereotypes and prejudices. These behaviors are tremendously negative for those who suffer from them and can affect them both physically and mentally. We detail it.

There are more and more older people

The world population is aging by leaps and bounds. According to estimates by the United Nations Organization (UN), in 2030 the number of people over 60 will increase by 38% (from the current 1,000 million to 1,400 million) and will surpass youth globally. In developing countries, this increase will be larger and faster. The European Statistical Office (Eurostat) calculates that of the 45.3 million inhabitants that Spain will have in 2030, more than 11 million will be over 65 years of age.

And it is that the life expectancy of the world population is increasing. At present, it is equal to or greater than 60 years, as reported by the UN. According to the National Institute of Statistics (INE), the figure exceeds 83 years.

Getting to blow out such a number of candles on the birthday cake does not necessarily mean suffering from a host of diseases or ailments, experiencing motor limitations, suffering from cognitive impairment or depending on other people. However, and despite the fact that more and more elderly people are leading a full and healthy life without requiring the intervention of the youngest in their daily lives, many times as a society we are not aware and we act in a discriminatory and paternalistic manner. This behavior is known as ageism and, unfortunately, it is practiced worldwide.

What is ageism?

The American psychiatrist Robert Butler coined the term ageism in 1968 to refer to age discrimination. The World Health Organization (WHO) not only endorsed this definition but also expanded its meaning by establishing that ageism refers to the way of thinking (stereotypes), feeling (prejudice), and acting (discrimination) with respect to others or ourselves. themselves due to age.

Although ageism affects all age groups, it is those over 65 who suffer the most. It is very present in society: under the presumption that all people are equal, prejudices arise and generalist behaviors are triggered that do not take into account the diversity of old age. In these cases, ageism is intertwined with other forms of disadvantage, such as those related to gender, race, and disability, adding to the problem.

What effects does ageism have?

According to the UN, half of the world’s population is ageist with respect to older people. Age discrimination has fatal consequences, both physical and psychological. The WHO warns that people who suffer (and acquire as true) this type of negative attitude could live 7.5 years less than those who adequately assume old age.

The Ministry of Health has listed the main effects of ageism on health:

  • It produces cardiovascular stress.
  • It conditions the negative perception of oneself, which can entail a risk of self-exclusion (for example, not wearing hearing aids considering that they are a sign of old age, although deafness occurs in younger and younger people ).
  • It perpetuates stereotyped beliefs about aging, causing exclusion in decision-making and participation.
  • It limits the access of the elderly to the labor market.
  • It can increase the digital divide.
  • It produces a lack of adaptation to the care required by age.

Are our behaviors ageist?

In the opinion of John Beard, director of the Department of Aging and Life Cycle of the WHO, “most of us are unconsciously carried away by stereotypes about older people. However, as with sexism and racism, we can modify these behaviors present in our societies and stop treating people based on their age. With this, we will make our societies more prosperous, equitable and healthy”.

Ageism is so internalized in society that many times we practice it automatically, without realizing it. These are some examples that we should avoid when dealing with the elderly:

  1. Treat them childishly.
  2. Assume that they are not capable of understanding technological advances.
  3. Raise your voice or shout at them.
  4. Prevent them from making decisions in their day to day.
  5. Make fun of your physical limitations.
  6. Refer to body odor as a consequence of their age.
  7. Consider that yes or yes they are sick or ailing.
  8. Don’t let them do things alone.
  9. Assuming that certain behaviors are due to age.
  10. Use pejorative terms when naming them.
  11. Qualify them as dependent and disabled.

How to combat ageism

As a society, we must understand that aging is another stage of life that sooner or later we will all reach. The behaviors that we use today when we still consider ourselves young, will be applied to us when we reach 65 years of age. So what can we do?

  • The first step to counter negative and stereotyped concepts is to make the problem visible.
  • Facilitating the participation of older people in conversations and making them see that they exist in other forums beyond those related to pensions, illnesses or travel for the elderly is very important.
  • It is also vital to recognize your worth: your experience, maturity and perspective is non-negotiable and must be taken into account.


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