Age discrimination and disrupting cultural attitudes toward growing older were the topics of a recent clinical forum at Somerville-Cambridge Elder Services (SCES).
The discussion was led by SCES Elder Care Advisor Corinne Lofchie, who explained that negative assumptions about aging are widespread, insidious, and can have profound impacts.
“Research has been done that indicates people with positive associations of aging live about seven-and-a-half years longer,” said Lofchie. “That’s a bigger increase than quitting smoking or exercise– so it certainly is in all of our interests to really think about what negative messages about aging we have internalized.”
The presentation was attended by more than 30 SCES employees, who discussed how age discrimination—also known as ageism – manifests in society, often by those who mean well but lack awareness. Lofchie defined the issue by using the words of ageism expert and author Ashton Applewhite.
“‘We’re ageist when we feel differently toward a person or group on the basis of how old we think they are,’” quoted Lofchie. “‘We experience ageism any time people assume we’re too old for something… instead of finding out who we are and what we’re capable of.’”
“‘Like racism and sexism, ageism is a socially constructed idea that has changed over time and serves a social and economic purpose,’” continued Lofchie, reading from Applewhite’s book, This Chair Rocks. “‘Like all discrimination, it legitimizes and sustains inequity between groups.’”
An Ageist Society
Lofchie identified cultural associations with growing older as one common source of ageism, noting that media portrayals typically depict older as “less than” youth. She contrasted that perception with numerous studies that put end-of-life among the happiest times in most people’s lives.
“Since we live in an ageist society, it’s an ongoing process to challenge those negative beliefs that we see and hear all around us,” said Lofchie.
The convention of using age as a criteria for defining a person’s identity was also identified as a common manifestation of ageism.
“For instance, describing somebody as a ‘78-year-old woman from Cambridge’ assumes that we can make assumptions about people based on age,” said Lofchie. “We know that people who are the same age are much more different than alike, but we are so used to using age as a primary description that it can feel necessary.”
The SCES forum on ageism included breakout sessions, where staffers discussed their experiences and reported back to the group as whole.
Case manager Ana Comtois discussed how she’s approached balancing risk versus a client’s wishes. She listed one example, of a client with throw-rugs in her apartment. Comtois said since they’re a potential tripping hazard, she often cautioned the client on the danger of having them scattered throughout the apartment. She said the client was aware of the risk, and decided to keep the rugs out anyway.
“They make her happy,” said Comtois, speaking to the case manager’s role of providing information while respecting clients’ self-determination.
The cultural tendency to approach aging as a matter of problem-solving was a recurring topic of the discussion. Social Worker Nathaniel Meyer suggested that perspective doesn’t reflect the whole picture.
“It’s focused on what’s wrong, and not what’s meaningful to the person,” he said.
Disrupting Perceptions of Aging
An alternative perception on aging was offered in a video segment that featured AARP CEO JoAnn Jenkins. She suggested the focus should be on living, not aging.
“I want people to define me by who I am, not how old I am,” she said. “Disrupting aging begins with each of us embracing our own age and feeling good about where we are in life.”
A similar approach was advised in a written piece by Applewhite, called “Towards a Radical Age Movement.”
“We need new social visions that will inspire and support people to grow and participate actively throughout their entire lives. No age-segregation or pitting generation against generation… we can’t leave it to ‘experts’ to tell us how to age ‘successfully,’ nor to an aging-industrial complex that sees older adults as a dependent group of consumers.”
Instead, Applewhite suggested a nationwide grassroots effort that challenges traditional notions of aging by embracing the full-life journey, prioritizing cross-generational communities, and celebrating the contributions of older adults.
During her presentation, Lofchie said her intent was to get people thinking about these topics.
“My goal for our time together is that each of us be challenged in some way to think a little differently about aging,” she said.
The clinical discussion was part of a monthly program at SCES, which seeks to raise awareness on a variety of topics related to aging and serving older adults. Annie Fowler, Director of Clinical Programs, said that the discussion may become a part of training new SCES employees that work directly with clients.
“SCES aims to offer staff trainings that inform, challenge pre-conceived ideas, and ultimately lead to better care for our clients and their caregivers,” said Fowler. “Ageism is something that has probably impacted all of our clients at one point or another, so I plan to use Corinne’s presentation in the future to orient new direct-care staff.”
Corinne Lofchie is an Elder Care Advisor in the SCES Aging Information Center, which provides free information and guidance on a variety of aging, disability and caregiving issues. To learn more, visit eldercare.org or follow SCES on Facebook and Twitter.