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Addressing Ageism

An Essay by Jan Hively

"Independence. Participation. Care. Self-Fulfillment. Dignity."

—United Nations Principles for Older Persons

Age awareness and ageism are two entirely different things:

  • Age awareness focuses on changes that tend to occur with age and ways of respecting and adjusting to the differences. It addresses the process of making transitions in a way that maximizes the quality of the second half of life.
  • Ageism closes minds rather than opens them. It features a pattern of discriminatory bias that causes people to make judgments based on traditional stereotypes.

Our society emphasizes health, wealth, and youthfulness. Traditional stereotypes associate aging with illness, dependency, loss of identity and status, and loss of memory and mental acuity. Public policy has fostered segregated communities and services for older people. Now, as business seeks new markets, advertisements are beginning to show beautiful, gray-haired couples demonstrating their athletic prowess, spending money, and having fun in retirement. Neither of these views gives a true picture of our aging population.

Engrained social conventions and attitudes about aging interfere with a realistic assessment of the true capacities, activities, and interests of older adults. Seeing older adults either as infirm dependents or as leisured retirees feeds discriminatory ageism. One impact has been to encourage early withdrawal from the labor force through disincentives for older adults to participate in public and private employment. These disincentives run counter to the needs of a full employment economy. Another has been to focus public policy on services for the growing population of frail elderly, with minimal attention to empowering the productivity of seniors. As the baby boomers age, we will transform our thinking about what it means to get older.

Our task is to expand age awareness by sharing what we know, both from research and personal experience. You cannot define a problem if you are not familiar with what is normal or natural. And you cannot take advantage of the wealth of creative, stimulating opportunities open to older adults if you are not aware of the possibilities.


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