According to COTA (previously Council on the Ageing and now simply COTA), ageism is about attitudes where older people are perceived to be less deserving and receive prejudicial or detrimental treatment. It can also mean that the older person is treated as
incapacitated and in need of protection, regardless of whether there is an actual need for support. In such a case their rights and dignity are lost in the process of protective behaviour.
If we are to reverse or diminish the impact of ageism, we need to recognise the rights, needs, and dignity of older people and ensure there is both valuing and continuing opportunity for contribution of people in an older age group. The first step is to stop thinking there is always a ‘typical’ older person. People of all ages are individuals trying to make their way through life and whatever it throws at them. If we were to see a person with a disability who was in their twenties, we would seek to treat them as a person in their twenties who has individual interests and personality, who has ideas and goals and things they want to do. But do we see an older person in the same way? Is it easier to see them as the ‘dear old lady across the road’ or the ‘grumpy old bloke at the shops’? Characterising people stereotypically helps us to negate the person within the bigger picture of individuals in an identifiable group. It helps us to see a homogenous group with no aspirations and no differences. It is then easy to set up support that is also a bland version of what has always been done.
Even the illnesses of an older person can be devalued or seen as less important than if they were, for example, a 50-year-old or younger person. It’s an easy throwaway line to say, ‘they’re old’, ‘they’re past their prime’, ‘they’re feeling the result of too many knocks’ or whatever lines might come too easily. If we think all illnesses of an older person are to be expected we ignore their needs and rights for comfort, for hope and for an active life where possible. It’s an easy throwaway line to say, ‘they’re old’, ‘they’re past their prime’, ‘It's what
you expect at this age’ or whatever lines might come too easily. If we think all illnesses of an older person are to be expected we ignore their needs and rights for comfort, for hope and for an active life where possible.
We can start by thinking about our way of communicating about older people and to older people. Are they ‘sweetie’ or ‘love’, or worst of all in my mind ‘dear’? Do we ignore their complaints of discomfort as the inevitable result of ageing without ever asking what is being done to manage the pain? Do we forget to ask what the older person prefers before we do whatever we think is best for them? Do we speak over the top of them to the younger person beside them, showing their involvement in the conversation is less than important? Do we look at them, give eye contact, or do we look at our screens or past them or only at the wound or the shoe or the clothing or the other items that we are dealing with, never the person?
Let’s remember the dancer, the tradesman, the musician, the gardener, the professional, the parent, the worker, the loved one, the friend in front of us. The person in front of us, with wishes, and wants, needs and interests, decisions and contributions to be made.