“How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day of June…. If it were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that -for that – I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that!” [1]

What is the one thing that everyone on this planet is going to become – luckily? Old. Now ask the people around you how they feel about getting older, and many of them will most likely hide their fear and reluctance at the prospect. But what makes us so afraid?

Let’s try to sketch a common image of how we perceive old age, for instance, finding ourselves left alone by our family or relatives in a nursing home or being afflicted with dementia or coming down with depression acknowledging the fact that the dark shadow of death is approaching.

Nevertheless, the above mentioned thoughts are all common prejudices which have been denied by statistical data.
According to these data [2], only 4% of older Americans live in nursing houses and the percentage is even falling. What about dementia?  Data [3] reveals that about the 90% of older Americans are able to think normally, and the number is raising. So, what about depression? Many studies indicate that people are happier at the beginning and at the end of their lives. This theory is called the “U-curve of happiness” or also “The U-bend of life” and its consequences don’t rely on your current emotional status or on your bank account, because the U-curve is a function of the way aging itself affects the brain. [4]

So, you might now feel slightly better about getting older. But why don’t so many people feel this way? Why do so many people still ignore these facts which have been provided by so many of studies?

There is only one answer: ageism. This term was coined for the first time in 1969 by Robert Neil Butler [5] and it refers to the application of prejudicial or biased opinions against a group of people only because of their age. Ageism also indicates prejudices and discrimination against teenagers and children, for example ignoring their ideas because they are not considered “matured enough” or assuming the all millennials are addicted to social networks. However, this term is mostly used in relation to the treatment of older people.

Ageism is a form of discrimination as much as racism, sexism and homophobia, but while many of us have been generally educated to be aware of these forms of discrimination and prejudices, the awareness about ageism is still very low today.
We know that all prejudices are fed on the basis of an identification of the other whom we feel distant from us.  Indeed, people are often suspicious of other religions, other cultures or other nationalities. The ironic thing about ageism is that now the other is us. In fact, ageism is based on self-denial and the dread of having to accept that we are going to become the older version of ourselves. It’s a self-affliction when people make so much effort to look younger or when they rely on anti-ageing products and even when they harbor a grudge toward their bodies only because they are changing.

We continuously perform ageist behaviors in our everyday lives and we don’t know it. For instance, when we praise other people by comparing them to younger ones or when we describe a moment of forgetfulness as a “senior moment” and even when we assume that all young people are digital experts and that all older people are technologically inept. These are examples of all ageist behaviors.

However, we cannot change these social paradigms unless we gain awareness of them. Of course, no one is born ageist as well as racist and sexist, but we know that our lens through which we perceive the world shapes during our early childhood. The problem is that from the moment we are born we are constantly bombarded in our daily life by negative messages about aging through popular culture which is excessively obsessed with youth. The Media, TV shows and movies are merely a reflection of it.  According to a survey of recent Best Picture nominations of Hollywood movies, only 12 percent of speaking and namely characters were over 60 and the most of them were depicted as weak [6].  Only a few weeks ago, a Dutch man ended up in the news because he is requesting to be recognized as being 20 years younger than his real age . Among his complains, he reported facing continuous discriminations on daily-basis because of his age. [7]

The consequences of such a cultural setting are disturbing. As we can easily guess, aging necessarily leads to an increased demand for healthcare services at some level and, at some point, for almost every older person. However, according to a study published in the Journal of General Internal medicine, one out of five older Americans experiences ageism by health care professionals and those who experience it more often are more likely to develop new diseases or worsen the existing ones [8]. Another study from the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging on the ageist attitudes of 440 people aged 18-49 shows that negative stereotypes of older adults lead to an increase risk of cardiovascular diseases in the future. [9]

These data clearly tells us that we must all care about ageism and that it is not only a problem that older people experience every day, but it’s a burden which sooner or later will affect our own lives and it makes the health care system less efficient considering, as we have just said, that ageism has a negative impact on the health of older patients who at the moment take up about 27% of all doctors’ visits and 35% of hospital beds according to American data. What can you do about it? I am not trying to convince you to become an activist or to change the world, just start paying more attention to how you speak (and this also applies to behaviors relating to racism, sexism and homophobia) and this will have a positive impact on your own life and on those around you.

 

At the end of this article I would like to dedicate a special thanks to my dear friend Marina for giving me the spark, during one of our conversions, which prompted me to write this article and, as consequence, to change myself and my socially constructed attitudes that I had always harbored towards old age.

REFERENCES

Wilde, O. (1890). The Picture of Dorian Grey. [1]

Administration of Aging, 2003. [2] [TED. (2017, August 23th). Let’s end ageism | Ashton Applewhite]

American Sociological Review, 2008 [3] [TED. (2017, August 23th). Let’s end ageism | Ashton Applewhite]

We do not know exactly what causes the U-bend, scientists have advanced the theory that maybe people at the beginning  or at the end of their lives accept their own weaknesses and strengths and they are less influenced by ambitions, like to gaining an important role or making more money. [4] https://www.economist.com/christmas-specials/2010/12/16/the-u-bend-of-life

Rober Neil Butler (1927-2010) was a physician, gerontologist, psychiatrist and author. [5]

TED. (2017, August 23th). Let’s end ageism | Ashton Applewhite [6]

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/11/07/dutch-man-69-identifies-20-years-younger-launches-legal-battle/ [7]

https://www.seniorliving.org/retirement/ageism-healthcare/ [8]

https://www.omicsonline.org/proceedings/the-consequences-of-age-discrimination-18208.html  [9]

DIGGERS

Here is a link to an article which explains the “U-Curve’s Theory” in much more detail. https://www.economist.com/christmas-specials/2010/12/16/the-u-bend-of-life [4]

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