There should be rewards for living a long life. Yet too often in today’s world there seem to be only penalties, presented with a heaping serving of disrespect or as yet another punchline to a comedian’s joke. The concept of the golden years, let alone respect for one’s elders, seems tarnished and transformed into visions of some loathsome outcome that happens to others. Forgotten are the times when a long life was considered a gift.
According to the experts, ageism — the stereotyping and/or discrimination against individuals or groups based on their age — has been a long-standing problem in this country. It is one that has only intensified in the COVID era in which older Americans have bore the brunt of the fatalities.
As an October 2021 Kaiser Health News report reminds us, according to a study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, in health care settings, nearly 20% of Americans 50 and older said they experienced discrimination, potentially resulting in “inappropriate or inadequate care,” writes Judith Graham.
“Ageism or age discrimination has deeply permeated our culture, mindsets and attitudes,” writes Jeff Hoyt, editor-in-chief of SeniorLiving.org. It is the kind of thinking that leads folks of a certain age to feeling disposable, misrepresented and misunderstood. “The reality is, today’s society treats older people unfairly often lumping all aged 65 and up into a group of old, frail, decrepit, forgetful and sickly beings separate from the rest of society,” says Hoyt. This leads younger generations to the assumption that older people aren’t resilient and can’t recover from illness.
A journal article on ageism in health care co-authored by Dr. Karin E. Ouchida, a geriatrics specialist at Weill Cornell Medicine and Dr. Mark Lachs, a family medicine specialist at Sutter Roseville Medical Center, points to multiple studies that show that ageist acts cause lower self-esteem and depression among older patients, causing older adults to have “ageist views about their own aging process that can greatly affect their health.”
“Every day, around 10,000 Americans turn 65,” notes Hoyt. This number is only expected to rise. As noted in an article by USA Today, by 2030, all baby boomers will be 65 or older. It is time we start to view older Americans as important rather than burdens on our nation, Hoyt stresses.
According to Ouchida and Lachs, it is time we all start “changing our unpleasant perceptions about aging and embrace aging for what it is — a normal process of living that doesn’t necessarily mean disability, disease, and decline.”
And what of this idea of living a long life? You may be surprised to learn that it is not some recent development attributed to modern medicine.
Sharon DeWitte is a bioarchaeologist and professor of anthropology at the University of South Carolina. In a recent post on The Conversation, she says the idea that long life spans in humans are very recent, and that no one in the ancient past lived much beyond their 30s, is a common misperception. “There’s physical evidence that plenty of people in the past lived long lives — just as long as some people do today,” she writes.
“Given physical and historical evidence that many people did live long lives in the past, why does the misperception that everyone was dead by the age of 30 or 40 persist? It stems from confusion about the difference between individual life spans and life expectancy,” she says.
DeWitte defines life expectancy as the average number of years of life remaining for people of a particular age. It is an average. “Life expectancy is a population-level statistic that reflects the conditions and experiences of a huge variety of people with very different health conditions and behaviors … Life expectancy is not a promise (or a threat!) about the life span of any single person.”
The assumption that all older people are frail and helpless today is a common and incorrect stereotype. These beliefs present themselves in many disturbing ways, some of which may have “enduring consequences,” says a recent USA Today report.
Dr. Julie Silverstein is president of the Atlantic division of Oak Street Health in Philadelphia. She describes what could be defined as a crisis in “crisis standards of care” in various hospitals specifying the treatment of younger adults before older adults. Says the American Psychological Association, such health care rationing “devalue older adults’ lives as unworthy or a reasonable ‘sacrifice.'” And it is wrong.
In more subtle ways, there are instances of “doctors assuming older patients who talk slowly are cognitively compromised and unable to relate their medical concerns. If that happens, a physician may fail to involve a patient in medical decision-making, potentially compromising care,” says Silverstein.
Aging is not just a biological process; it is also a cultural one. Treating older folks with respect used to be second nature in previous generations. It also made good sense. Beyond expanding your knowledge and worldly insight, being old is a position you might find yourself in one day. So, let’s think for a moment about ageist attitudes we may be advancing. They may well be your inheritance, should you reach senior citizenship.