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Putting Age -friendly Principles into Practice - 5c Overcoming Ageism and Age Discrimination



Just because I’ve been talking about Dementia, loss of mobility or other health issues doesn’t mean that you should get depressed about ageing. There are simply more and more people living longer and mostly better lives and these afflictions are only a small part of it. In the longer TED Talk by Ashton Applewhite, she mentions that Dementia affects only 4% of the population. In other good news, 90% of UK residents over 65 remain in their own homes, only 8% of Australians end up in care homes and only around 4% of Americans do. As it stands this usually only happens at the very end of people’s lives and those numbers are falling and could fall more quickly if  things like accessibility, mobility and affordability which we mentioned earlier, were addressed - something which is happening now.Continuing research may also reduce the figures for Dementia.

Sixty is a Number, not a Use – By -Date

 Another cause for celebration is that some of the world’s greats did their best work in later life. See for example Webster of Dictionary fame or Roget of Roget’s Thesaurus, neither of whom published their work until they were in their 70’s and you only have to look at people like David Attenborough (Age 96), Noam Chomsky (Age 93)  or Canadian scientist and conservationist, David Suzuki (86), who are still active and still changing the world, to see that life does not end at 60 or 65. Dr Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s top medical advisor and director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases for the past 38 years, is only now considering stepping down at the age of 81 to pursue his “Next Chapter” which  will involve travel, writing and inspiring young people to join the public service. For the present these "immortals" may seem remarkable, not only for their age, but also because of their achievements. However, as research continues and more people gain access to better health care, productivity in later life could well become the norm, rather than the exception. Greeting card manufacturers are already reporting that the biggest growth area in sales has been in cards for 90 - and 100 year-olds.

So why are people so fearful and negative about ageing and what could be up to one third of our lives? While much of this has to do with historic reality when few people lived long beyond retirement, it is also reinforced by the media, by those around us and even the things we tell ourselves. This is called Ageism.


 Age Discrimination

Age Discrimination involves actively denying someone an opportunity or a service because of their age. Though Age Discrimination is illegal in many countries  e.g. throughout the EU, the UK, the  USA and Australia, it is much more common than otherkinds of discrimination such as on the basis of  race, gender, disability and so on, but is often compounded by the other kinds so an older women, persons of colour and so on are likely to suffer even  more disadvantage. Surveys in the USA indicated that 61% of workers reported witnessing or experiencing ageism in the workplace. It is also very common in Australia.

In the workplace it may mean denying someone a job, training or a promotion because of their age, but it can also can also occur with respect to say, access to medical services or other opportunities. Listen to Lou Reyes talking about how to recognise age discrimination in the workplace. For some people these experiences are so demoralising that they lose confidence and become increasingly withdrawn, which can ultimately affect their physical and mental health.

Despite the law however, discrimination remains difficult to prove in court - only 2% of cases had succeeded in The UK courts, so it is far better if we begin to change the culture around ageing because it is something which will affect us all, sooner or later.

From a national report on Ageism by the University of Michigan

Countering Ageism and Age Discrimination

The UK’s Centre for Ageing Better has done extensive research and published comprehensive guides on this topic so anyone in the media, government or working with older people should most definitely read them. It is all about changing the conversation around ageing – reaffirming that it is a normal progression, not something  we should fear or seek to avoid. I’m just going to summarise the main points here.

In the media

Ageing is often presented negatively as a time of decline and dependency. There are plenty of other stories out there of people living normal and very diverse lives. Avoid the extremes – the 85 -year -old who’s just completed her degree or the 90-year-old who has just gone sky diving. Don’t mention people’s age, unless it’s directly relevant to the story. Don’t use images such as wrinkly hands which reinforce the idea of frailty. Ageing Better UK has a great range of free images which challenge these stereotypes. We should also avoid old cliches like being ‘over the hill’ and having ‘senior moments’ and those tired old jokes on greeting cards.

Advertising should reflect the great diversity among older people too and not just be about anti – wrinkle creams (age denial) and funeral insurance. Older people are a large audience and they are the biggest spenders in sectors such as travel, clothing, household purchases and  eating out and should be proportionally represented.We have channels for children, for young people and even for men, why not a seniors' channel?

Fortunately many of our television programs are becoming more inclusive. We do see older people on panel discussions and in Drama. Among my personal faves are the UK series “Vera,” and the Danish series “Unit One,” the latter as much because it shows one of the senior detectives in a normal unobtrusive, unexceptional way just like the others – a dysfunctional relationship, still working, still passionate – perhaps less troubled by finances or wayward offspring, but still prone to all mortal failings. There isn’t that sense of tokenism about it which sometimes seems to happen when quotas as per population segments are required. If there were quotas with respect to older people on TV,  they would need to rise to one sixth of the cast and around one in four people in Europe by 2050.

Above all, don’t buy into that  divisive millennial vs boomer debate. It creates a false dichotomy which negates a vast range of different experiences. Most older people have worked hard and paid taxes all their lives and thus supported other generations – the schools, the hospitals as well as paying for the parks, roads and services – water supply and power systems and so on which benefit everyone. Many are still working. According to the  National Office of Statistics for England and Wales, 3.4 million of its public sector workers are over 50 and 130,000 are over 70. They aren’t taking the jobs of millennials. They rarely compete in the same sector. If there’s competition it’s because there’s simply not enough work and that is the problem which needs to be addressed. We’ll talk more about employment in the next segment.

Blaming older people for Climate Change and environmental decline is also wrong. Older people have been at the forefront of the conservation movement – they started it and many are still actively working or contributing in other ways. Much the same goes for feminism. Many of the perks which young women enjoy today – from subsidised childcare to parental leave, have come about because of the work done by “boomers.” One estimate of the unpaid work done by volunteers in Australia -many of them seniors, puts it at $22 billion which, if paid for at the going rate, would be equivalent to the income generated by the mining industry. Nor are older people necessarily a threat to the economy. Germany had an ageing population as far back as 1967 and does not appear to have suffered any disadvantage.

Changing the way we talk about and to older people

This applies especially to Government departments and ‘helping’ professionals. Don’t refer to older people  as “them” or “they,” or as old age pensioners. Use the expression older person. Don’t be patronising or talk down to people. Don’t “elderspeak.” In other words don’t talk extra loudly or very slowly unless you know you are dealing with someone who needs that. People in nursing homes are ‘residents’ not patients.

Changing the way older people think about themselves

 Listen to the terrific TED talk by Ashton Applewhite about changing the way we think about ageing. The short answer is - be passionate, be proud and don’t be invisible. Protest, get on talkback radio or forums and write letters to the editor on issues that matter. Complain if television ads or programs aren’t inclusive or fail to accurately represent older people as they are and bust those myths at every turn. Otherwise we start internalising those beliefs to limit ourselves, saying things like "I would like to do this, but I'm too old."

I’ve also just been reading a lovely blog by Unknown which says that “Those who embrace the natural process of life will usually be happier and more positive about living.” It also talks about not comparing yourself to others and not focusing on limitations, but rather on the uniqueness of each individual.

Freed from the responsibilities of work, mortgages and child rearing, many people report that their senior years are the happiest time in their lives – a time when they are able to fulfill lifelong dreams, start businesses or new careers or activities which revolve around giving back, rather than maximising their earnings. 


Also from the surveys on Ageing conducted by the University of Michigan

Raising the profile of older people in society

On October 1, the world celebrates the UN Day of Older Persons. Listen to centenarians talk about what it means to be a 100 and the opportunities which a longer life span can bring. We also just happen to be in the Decade of Healthy Ageing which began in 2021. You'll notice that the focus on both Age - friendly environments and Combating Ageism.

Traditionally very respectful towards its older citizens, Japan celebrates Respect for the  Aged Day on the third week in September. This is a paid holiday so that young people can visit their parents. The elderly are also given small gifts, volunteers deliver bento boxes to older people in their neighbourhoods and children put on entertainment.

In our state we have Senior’s Week from October 17th to the 23 rd. During this period, public transport it free for seniors and they have a chance to try out a number of activities. I was able to have a flying lesson under this program some years ago. There are a lot of social, artistic and cultural events and it is also a chance to improve one’s physical health through things like hearing tests, balance and fitness training and dance of various kinds. You can also learn to use a range of digital technologies. 

I'm not sure if it has continued during the pandemic, but by 2017 Frankfurt had had an annual film festival by senior film makers for seniors for over eight years. Similar festivals are now being held in a number of countries including Portugal, Belgium and the UK, making 200 in all at the last count and they have been enthusiastically received. Senior Film festivals are also making an appearance in Australia. Palace Cinemas are running them in several locations throughout the year. Melbourne is having one for its Senior's Week.

Several cities and countries – for example the City of Portland give awards to Age Friendly Businesses and Employers. Lonconche (Chile) also recognises businesses which have made a special effort to treat the elderly with respect and which recognise the needs of older people by for example, using large lettering and having goods within easy reach. It seeks to change perceptions of ageing by discussing positive ageing and respect for the elderly in schools and young people are encouraged to take part in shared activities to raise the profile of older persons in the community. Age -friendliness is promoted in offices and government departments across all sectors from health and education across social and economic development, tourism, the environment, planning sport and finance.

Below is a clip about the Irish  Award for Age -friendly businesses.


One city - it may have been the City of Manchester, has a secret shoppers program where seniors rate businesses on their Age- friendliness. I'm not sure if this leads to formal recognition of some kind, but it would almost certainly encourage repeat business. 

In last night’s news there was a small segment about how the number of older people doing retraining has increased by 73%.  We need more items like this in the general news, not just in newsletters for Seniors. Much better than only hearing about how many people are on waiting lists for Home Care or about neglect in Aged Care.

When I see performers like Mick Jagger or Roger Waters, strutting the stage - still entertaining and inspiring younger generations, I have great hopes that the generation which challenged the old order in the 70s, ended conscription and the war in Vietnam and took on issues such as the status of women and World Hunger, won't be going quietly into the twilight of their lives. I see even ABBA are back on stage, forty years down the track. 

Next up: Civic Engagement and Employment, subject to the occasional distraction.