Appalling comments demonstrate why ageism must never be dismissed as harmless
A Yale professor was recently – and rightly – criticised for the appalling suggestion that the mass suicide or mandatory euthanasia of older people was the only solution to the ‘burden’ of an ageing population in Japan.
The fact that it was seen as acceptable to make these comments, which were actually defended by some commentators, shows how little value is placed on our later lives.
This starkly demonstrates the extent to which ageism is still often seen as being acceptable and dismissed as being harmless, despite a growing body of evidence and research demonstrating the damage that ageism and age discrimination causes to individuals and society.
This is explored in a recent report – ‘Ageism: What’s the Harm?’ – published by the Centre for Ageing Better, which identifies three main types of ageism and explores the ways these manifest themselves.
According to the report, the first type – institutionalised ageism – results in ageism being embedded in laws, rules, social norms, policies and practice. This is something we see within health services, with older people less likely to be offered certain treatment options regardless of the potential outcome, for example, and within employment practices, meaning older workers find themselves less likely to be employed and less likely to be offered training opportunities.
Institutional ageism also includes ‘ageism by omission’, where the needs of older people are not properly considered or understood by policy- and decision-makers, leading to gaps in services, support and amenities, something I frequently raise concerns about and challenge as Commissioner.
The report also highlights interpersonal ageism, which occurs in the interactions between individuals. This can include patronising or infantilising older people, or making pejorative assumptions or comments about someone based upon their age.
The third type of ageism identified in the report is self-directed ageism, which occurs when a person internalises ageism and modifies their own thinking or behaviour due to repeated exposure to ageist attitudes and messages.
For example, evidence shows that people who believe that physical and mental decline in older age is inevitable are more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviours – such as drinking alcohol, smoking and being inactive – while being less likely to engage with healthcare and preventative services. Self-directed ageism can also lead people to believe they are ‘too old’ to progress in work or learn new skills, which may limit their ambitions and the opportunities they might pursue.
Perhaps the most concerning finding within the report is that the UK appears to be a particularly ageist country: an analysis of the language used about older people in web-based newspapers and magazines from 7,000 websites across 20 countries found the UK to be the most ageist of all. This reflects the findings of my own research into the portrayal of older people in the media, which found that two-thirds of news stories about older people portrayed them in a negative light.
This demonstrates why far more action is needed to end ageism and age discrimination – a core focus of my work as Commissioner – given the significant harm these issues cause.
For individuals, this harm includes adverse effects on physical and mental health, as touched on above, as well as significant wider barriers relating to things like employment and financial well-being.
And ageism and age discrimination also harms society more widely, damaging social cohesion and creating intergenerational division, reinforcing inequality and limiting our productivity. When older people are excluded, we lose their knowledge, skills and experiences, leaving us poorer both economically and culturally.
Tackling these issues must be a priority and while there is growing recognition of the scale and impact of ageism and age discrimination, much greater awareness is needed throughout our public services and across society more generally. Ageism should never be dismissed as harmless and should be treated as seriously as other forms of discrimination.
Furthermore, evidence and data relating to older people and their experiences needs to improve significantly. As I have highlighted previously, gaps in data collected relating to older people and their experiences can lead to assumptions that older people are not affected by an issue despite the opposite being the case.
This can lead to older people essentially being rendered invisible to policy and decision-makers as they are not able to fully understand people’s needs and determine where resources and services need to be targeted.
Alongside this, older people must be involved in the design and development of policies and services in a meaningful way. Many older people are ‘experts by experience’ and ensuring their voices are heard will help to improve policy and practice and make our communities more age-friendly.
As Commissioner I want to see a Wales where older people are valued, rights are upheld and no-one is left behind, and taking forward this kind of action to tackle ageism, which underpins many of the issues faced by older people, will play a crucial part in delivering this.