The same old story as ageism rears it ugly head


SECOND OPINION:Like sexism and racism, it’s another form of stereotyping, writes JACKY JONES

SERVERS IN SHOPS and bars have suddenly started calling me “love” and “dear”. It took a while to realise that I was experiencing ageism.

Last week, I was in a well-known bookshop looking for a memory stick. I explained that I wanted one with a large memory and the shop assistant immediately turned to my daughter, who happened to be with me, and asked, “Does she want a four or an eight gigabyte?”

I remarked on her ageist attitude and my daughter, as daughters do, not wanting to be embarrassed, said “Come on Mum, you’re being paranoid.” I don’t think so.

During the presidential campaign several references were made to Michael D Higgins’s age as if age has anything to do with how well you can do your job.

Ageism is based on a negative belief system about the ageing process. In 1969 Robert Butler wrote that “ageism reflects a deep-seated uneasiness on the part of the young and middle-aged, a personal revulsion to and distaste for growing old, disease, disability, and a fear of powerlessness, uselessness and death.”

Ageism is about stereotyping, prejudicial attitudes, and direct and indirect discrimination against people because they are over a certain age. Stereotyping means not seeing people as individuals and thinking anyone over 50 is conservative, worthless, dependent and out-to-grass. Older people cease to be people or the same people. Ageism is like sexism and racism – but different, because we are all vulnerable.

In reality, people over 50 experience a high quality of life, according to the 2011 Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (Tilda). Far from being dependent, family financial transfers and other supports flow mainly from ageing parents to their adult children. Ageing, according to Tilda, is highly specific to each individual and not predetermined. In other words, age has very little to do with life after 50, which is determined mainly by income and education.

Ageism is one of the most socially condoned and institutional forms of prejudice, and is about our feared future selves. Thoughts about our own mortality can spark intense anxiety. Ageism allows younger people to see anyone over 50 as different, thus reducing their own fears of ageing and death.

Older people are seen from either a medical model perspective, where sickness is always part of the conversation, or a service model, where they are seen as serving

others (such as grandchildren and the future generation) or needing to be served (a little old lady who will drain you dry).

Strategies that affect old people are the same as for racism, sexism, homophobia and all the other -isms. These include invisibility, tokenism, contempt, disdain and even physical revulsion. Patronising language is often used, dressed up as a compliment, such as “how are you today, young lady?”, “you don’t look 50/80”, “you’re young at heart” and so on. When a person is over a certain age, they are spry not fit, feisty not energetic. Most people who make ageist comments haven’t a clue how offensive they are being.

Birthday cards show the pervasiveness of ageism. The same well-known bookshop stocks cards that are blatantly ageist, with jokey messages that all mean the same thing – age is bad. Examples include: “Life begins at 40 and it’s all downhill from there”, “Oh no, it’s the F word” (50), “Are you tired of all the mindless cards you’ve got . . . the sense of humour is the first to go”.

These may seem trivial matters, but ageism affects our health in many ways. Ageist comments can erode our confidence and self-esteem without us really knowing why unless we are tuned into it.

Ageism becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy whereby the internalisation of negative messages results in older people becoming prejudiced against themselves. They believe in and collude with the negative stereotypes. Hearing from others that one is “old” eventually brings about older behaviour and ill health.

We can stop ageism by being more assertive when confronted by ageist comments. Next time someone calls you “dear” or “love”, and you think it is because of your age, say something. Last week, a young man in a cafe called me “love”. I asked if he called everyone love or just people over 60? He was a bit taken aback and said he hadn’t thought about it.

I feel annoyed that I am now dealing with ageism after spending my 20s and 30s fighting for my rights as a woman. It’s time to start all over again.

Dr Jacky Jones is a former regional manager of health promotion with the HSE