This moral question has been the subject of many research papers as it relates to the topic of ageism, an often-misunderstood word. The Oxford Dictionary’s definition of ageism is discrimination against persons of a certain age group. Moreover, it generally carries a negative connotation, as there is a tendency by some in the population to automatically regard older persons as debilitated, unworthy of attention, or unsuitable for things like employment based on age alone. Thus, ageism fosters undeserved negative judgments against older people and it’s not a good thing. In fact, it may be among the biggest roadblocks to societal respect of our elders.
Per the Journal of the American Society on Aging, the term “ageism” was coined in 1968 by Robert N. Butler, a psychiatrist who headed the District of Columbia Advisory Committee on Aging. Dr. Butler believed that ageism permeated programs and resources meant to serve older Americans. He asserted that ageism was largely to blame for opposition to senior public housing in an affluent Washington DC suburb (1969), which attempted to keep the elderly poor of various ethnicities out of the neighborhood. Concerns over ageism motivated Dr. Butler to address issues related to generation gaps, discrimination towards older Americans, and negative attitudes toward the elderly. The Pulitzer Prize winning activist’s legacy included becoming the founding Director of the National Institute on Aging (NIA) of the National Institutes of Health, founder of the Department of geriatrics and adult development at Mount Sinai Medical Center, CEO of the International Longevity Center-USA, and namesake of the Columbia Aging Center. Dr. Butler made numerous appearances in the United States Congress and provided valuable research regarding healthy aging and dementias. As an expert on aging, he cautioned that not only does ageism set unfair limitations on the potentials of older adults, but it also devalues them as individuals.
So, does it still exist today? Unfortunately, yes. Modern day examples of ageism include older adults being denied jobs due to age, getting fired from a job based on age rather than performance, the widespread labeling older people as burdensome or troublesome, and supporting the misguided belief that the older people get, the less valuable their lives become. Social media appears to be one way in which ageism may be spread and even promoted, whereas older people are ridiculed, with some younger members of society suggesting that they be banned from public activities, such as shopping or driving. Per Psychiatric Times, during COVID-19, the hashtag #BoomerRemover was trending on social media and accompanied disparaging remarks and devaluing memes. These widespread negative ageist attitudes towards senior citizens are believed to result in discriminatory practices that put older people at risk. There is some strong evidence that ageism may contribute to negative health outcomes as a result.
Some inadequate treatment of senior citizens during COVID-19 has been witnessed. For example, it has been brought to public attention by Psychiatric Times and others that in the United States, CDC guidelines failed to identify residents in long-term care as high priority for COVID testing. It has been suggested, and in cases documented, that younger people were often prioritized for care and resources at hospitals. In the early days of the pandemic, over 9,000 patients recovering from the coronavirus were directed to nursing homes by New York state which then froze some data to hide nursing-home death toll numbers. In England, “excessive deaths” were recorded in care homes, in what some describe as a “complete breakdown” of the system as it relates to seniors. These examples leave many to question, “Why are our government leaders failing to protect senior citizens?”
In numerous countries across the world, people are living longer, and the number of seniors is rising. With medical staffing shortages expected to increase with time, and health care costs rising, debates over proposed rationing of medical services to older folks are growing, especially in countries with government run healthcare that view cost as a major decision-making factor. Many older people contribute to society and rely on health care services for their wellbeing. Thus, it is vital that their voices be heard by supporting organizations like AMAC, voting for politicians who support seniors, taking active roles in government and/or service organizations, and getting involved in and making informed decisions about healthcare. Perhaps the best thing that we can all do is speak out against ageism to halt discrimination and create awareness that all people deserve to be valued and respected regardless of age.