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Viewpoint: It’s time to call out ageism for the sake of our wellbeing

Viewpoint: It’s time to call out ageism for the sake of our wellbeing

“Everything you know about aging is wrong. It’s not your fault. Everything you’ve been taught about aging is wrong.”


I imagine some of you read those words and said, “Huh?” Then thought, “Well no. I know better. Being old is bad. Being not old is good.”

The words in the first paragraph are from the beginning of a new book, Ageism Unmasked by Dr. Tracey Gendron, Ph.D. Lifespan hosted a talk a few months ago by Dr. Gendron. The topic proved popular as over 300 people registered and attended. Why? Because many more of us who are living longer want ageism to be called out.

Like all “isms” ageism is limiting. Ageism diminishes us. Ageism isolating and even physical and emotionally harmful. Ageism is discrimination, prejudice, and stereotyping based on age. It is the one “ism” many of us will experience.

It’s also not an “ism” that comes immediately to mind because all too often we laugh about it. Yet, the truly funny thing about ageism is that by participating in it throughout our lives, we eventually will feel its sting. Dr. Gendron calls it “the manifestation of our prejudice toward our future selves.”

The pandemic exposed ageism at its worst. In March 2020, as COVID was spreading among older people, the hashtag “BoomerRemover” began circulating on Twitter. Yes, some people said the lives of older adults were less valuable than other lives.

No matter what you think about various political leaders, ageism is apparent in the millions of online and media discussions of “She/he is too old,” or “It’s past time for younger leaders,” while ignoring that seeing older people in positions of power is just one way to call the stereotype into question.

Ageism is ubiquitous. Birthday cards proclaim, “You’ve reached the wonder years! Wonder where your glasses are. Wonder what day it is;” or “You know you are getting old when lawn care becomes the highlight of your life.” We’ve all read even worse; we have heard or made ageist comments: “You look so good for your age!” or “You’re still… [running, dancing, driving]?” or “You’re too old to do those things.”

While these remarks may seem innocent, there are negative consequences. Our own negative self-perceptions about aging are related to physical loses and depressive symptoms. The indoctrination of ageism throughout our lives eventually can lead to poorer physical and mental health, social isolation and loneliness, financial insecurity, decreased quality of life and even premature death. On the other hand, Gendron notes, people with positive attitudes toward aging live an average of seven and a half years longer than those with negative attitudes!

People experience age-based discrimination in all types of settings: at work, in public places, in accessing and using health care. “Ageism has a price tag of $63 billion annually in health care costs. Ageism is responsible for 17 million cases of the eight most expensive health conditions per year among those 60 and older,” Gendron notes.

Ageism affects our economy and individual workers. Sixty one percent of adults 45 and older said they have either seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace. (AARP 2018) Older women, African Americans, Hispanics, and those who are unemployed were more likely to feel they were the subject of age discrimination.

The report The Economic Impact of Age Discrimination, found, “Bias against older workers cost the U.S. economy an estimated $850 billion in gross domestic product (GDP), 8.6 million jobs and $545 billion in lost wages and salaries in 2018 alone.” In 2020, another AARP report found more than half of global companies did not include age in their company’s diversity and inclusion policy.

Want to fight ageism? Dr. Gendron says, “Anti-ageism begins with the recognition that aging involves both challenges and opportunities.” This is truth. There is no denying the physical and sometimes mental health changes which occur as long as we have more birthdays. Acknowledging that we want and need meaning and purpose — no matter what our age, that we want and need engagement and fulfillment – no matter what our age, that we want friends and fun — no matter what our age is a start.

For the last 25 years, Lifespan has hosted the Celebration of Aging community luncheon. Each year, prior to the event, I’m privileged to meet with our honorees, our “Second Half of Life Heroes.” They are people who have “taken on the challenges and opportunities of longer life.” They aren’t necessarily the super-agers, people who are running marathons at 82. Some of our honorees have been in wheelchairs, some use walkers, and some are just continuing their life path into elderhood. Martha Hope, an honoree in 2022, told me “In two years I’ll be 80,” but I don’t think about it. We can do a lot of good in our 80s.” Another honoree, Margaret Joynt, told me “Every decade ending in a zero has been a new experience. Years ago, I had to think ahead because I knew I was not always going to be a mom raising six children. I had to plan my next stage, and that’s what I’ve done in my life.”

Introspection is required for all “isms.” Even after 30 years in the field and in my mid-60s, I’m rethinking the ways I write about aging, and the ways I think about my own life. If you need some help yourself, newer websites like Changing the Narrative, Next Avenue, Age On, Stop Ageism and Old School are taking on the issue with vengeance.

Don’t internalize ageism by limiting yourself to outdated norms and myths and speak-up! If you hear something ageist, call it out.

Mary Rose McBride is vice president of Marketing & Communications for Lifespan.