The population in the United States is greying at a high rate. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the world population over 60 will almost double from 12% to 22% from the year 2015 to 2050 (WHO, 2022). While this is great news, there are challenges that lie ahead. With increased aging adults in society, there have been increased rates of reported negative attitudes toward aging adults (Kang & Kim, 2022). Allen, Solway, Kirch., Singer, Kullgren, Moïse, and Malani (2022) state in a in a cross-sectional study of 2035 older adults that 93.4% of aging adults experience ageism daily. Additionally, aging adults report negative attitudes not only from society but also from their own self-perceptions (Levy, 2018; Kang and Kim, 2022).
Ageism is defined as the prejudice and or discrimination of an individual’s age (Kang and Kim, 2022). Several instances of ageism exist in our cultural spaces. “Old Farts” “Dead-beats” and “Greedy Geezers” are among the many examples of comments that have been directed toward aging adults (Barney, Chrisler, and Palatino, 2016). Barney et al (2016) states how ageist remarks negatively impact the well-being of older individuals, particularly women. Not only are women greatly impacted by negative attitudes toward aging but also underrepresented aging adults in non-White, heterosexual communities (Detwiler, 2016; Hoy‐Ellis & Fredriksen‐Goldsen, 2016; Hoy‐Ellis & Fredriksen‐Goldsen, 2017). Aging adults existing in the communities encounter significant challenges regarding racism, sexism, homophobia, and other barriers which further impact their identity and well-being in relation to intersectionality and age. The purpose of this write-up is to provide awareness of growing sentiment toward ageism, identity challenges toward aging, as well as potential strategies to mitigate the impact of ageism.
Identity Challenges in Aging
While ageism is a continually growing concern worldwide, there are many challenges with relation to aging and identity. One major concern is loss of identity and or role confusion. Many older adults report a lost sense of self as one ages. Generally, their children are adults, likely with their own children and life responsibilities. Women, according to traditional gender roles, are seen as caregivers, which may impact one’s view of their identity. Older men experience a greater sense of loss in relation to vocational identity (Harris et al., 2016).
Aging adults are likely to have experienced a significant shift in their financial and social relationships. For example, many aging adults have experienced the loss of work identity, financial changes, friends, family members, or even spouses (Harris et al., 2016). These life events can have a profound impact on their identity and well-being. In some situations, aging adults may experience internalized ageist beliefs which further impact their identity. Chrisler et al (2016) and Hoy-Ellis and Fredriksen-Goldsen (2016) reference distancing behaviors as an internalized ageist behavior evidenced by statements reflective of physical appearance and life events. Life events that aging adults experience can have negative impacts on their identity and well-being.
Another major concern in reference to ageism and identity revolve around societal expectations of aging adults. As previously stated, negative stereotypes reinforce harmful impacts onto aging adults. One example of this is associated systems in work. Aging adults are likely to experience extended wait times for longer unemployment while simultaneously accepting lower paid jobs (Harris, Krygsman, Waschenko, and Rudmon, 2018). Additionally, aging adults experience higher bouts of discrimination due to employer beliefs, attitudes, and actions. Many organizations view aging adults as cognitively unable to learn compared to their younger counterparts, be productive, and demonstrate flexibility in the workplace (Harris et al., 2018). Even subtle jokes regarding aging workers such as “old-timer’s” or “senior moments”, have negative connotations, insinuating that aging adults have cognitive limitations (Barney et al., 2016). Consequently, societal and organizational structures impact aging adults on an internal level, which fuels harmful thoughts for aging individuals (Barney et al., 2016). Aging adults may experience a lack of self-confidence and self-worth.
As adults age, another layer of identity challenges are their views of life meaning. It is not uncommon for aging adults to reflect upon their life with varying degrees of thoughts and emotions. Moreover, aging adults view their current selves as whether they have meaning or value in society. According to Barney, Chrisler, and Palatino (2016), society views aging adults as a burden to our healthcare system as well as other resources. Much of these negative societal views can further fuel negative attitudes such as aging adults constantly having health problems. Negative sentiments as such can have harmful effects on aging adults’ identity.
How Can Psychology Mitigate Ageism?
Psychology holds a variety of mechanisms that may be used to positively impact society’s view regarding the aging process. Furthermore, there are actions that can be taken to influence thoughts about aging. One notion is the emphasis on strength-based language. The GSA’s Reframing Aging Initiative (GSA, 2020) discusses the impact of aging being process that leads to new self-discoveries, wisdom, and acquired knowledge. It can be helpful to utilize language that highlights an aging adult’s strengths. For example, it could prove beneficial for communities to focus on the wealth of knowledge an aging adult provides to society. Moreover, it is important to acknowledge how much society benefits from hearing their lived experiences.
Empathy and Compassion
Empathy toward aging adults can be a powerful buffer toward negative attitudes in aging. Despite the variety of different definitions constituting empathy in the literature, it appears that the consensus is that empathy is defined as the ability to feel what a person is feeling, see things from their point of view, and perspective taking (Goetz, Keltner, and Simon-Thomas, 2010). While empathy and compassion are central to helping professions and human connection, it is important to be mindful in the way empathy is used. For example, it could be seen as invalidating to fully perceive the pain that an individual is experiencing, particularly in situations with underrepresented groups. Compassion can be another opportunity to mitigate ageism. According to the literature, compassion is defined as a person encountering another individual’s suffering, therefore, being motivated to act (Goetz,, Keltner, and Simon-Thomas, 2010). In the current landscape of the literature, compassion is a powerful, yet, underutilized method toward mitigating ageism. Mazzarelli and Trzeciak (2019) proclaim that compassion matters in that it can improve psychological well-being. Furthermore, compassionate positive interactions with aging adults reduce negative attitudes toward aging (Levy, 2016). Simply put, compassion is empathy in action.
Age-inclusive language is a major factor in promoting positive sentiments toward aging. Inclusive aging language mitigates negative stigma regarding how aging adults view their identity as well as how society views the aging process (Harvey Friedman Center for Aging, 2022). Furthermore, age-inclusive language can empower aging adults by reframing the aging process. When we utilize language regarding aging adults, we must consider respect and humility. The language that we use can break stereotypes and mitigate harm.
The Gerontological Society of America (GSA), particularly the Reframing Aging Initiative, recommends a variety of tips to include inclusive language within our society. One recommendation is the use of unifying language. This can be accomplished through avoiding use of terminology that implies helplessness by putting the person first when describing a condition. “Othering” language can be harmful for aging adults. For example, referring to aging adults as elderly, aged-dependent, and et cetera implies a sense of separation from social communities (GSA, 2021). Instead, focus on advancing language such as “we” and “our” statements. It is also important to consider contextual and cultural factors associated with the language used within communities. For some communities, referring to an aging adult as an “elder’ could be seen as a sign of respect while others view it as harmful rhetoric (Hirito & Yarry, 2018).
Creating New Narratives
One avenue that can be worth exploring is the notion of current narratives for aging adults. Kang and Kim (2022) found that whether aging adults had experienced or perceived ageism, it held more negative impacts for their psychological well-being. Another article referenced the vulnerability narrative of aging adults. Swift and Chasteen (2021) report that the vulnerability narrative that affects aging adults holds self-limiting views in how society as well as the aging adult views ageism. It is not uncommon for society as well as aging adults to view the aging process as negative. Despite the views on ageism and identity, it is vital to consider the concept of developing new narratives for ourselves and society moving forward. It is also important to refer to aging as a natural human experience framed with positive narratives. Talking affirmatively about the aging process can reframe viewpoints upon aging (GSA, 2021). Moreover, society and communities should express collectivist responsibility regarding aging matters. Detweiler et al (2023) state the importance of social connection for aging adults, which can have mitigating effects on ageism. It is important to acknowledge that everyone is interconnected and that cultural and systemic factors play vital roles in individuals’ lived experiences.
While this paper could not address all the nuances and challenges of ageism and identity, my hope is to bring attention to a seemingly neglected area of psychology and mental health. Moreover, the aim of this paper is that the strategies outlined may inform how we can continue mitigating the societal and psychological challenges of aging. One thing that we all have in common is growing older. A key component I would like to add for this bulletin piece is how aging can be a beautiful process, however, we must ensure that we collectively as a society can help improve the aging process.
Cite This Article
Butler, C. (2023). Ageism: The hidden “Ism”. Psychotherapy Bulletin, 58(2,3), 11-14.
Allen, J. O., Solway, E., Kirch, M., Singer, D., Kullgren, J. T., Moïse, V., & Malani, P. N. (2022). Experiences of Everyday Ageism and the Health of Older US Adults. JAMA network open, 5(6), e2217240. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.17240
Chrisler, J. C., Barney, A., & Palatino, B. (2016). Ageism can be hazardous to women’s health: Ageism, sexism, and stereotypes of older women in the healthcare system. Journal of Social Issues, 72(1), 86-104. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/josi.12157
Caskie, G. Detwiler, B. & Johnson, N. (2016). Minority stress in the sexual minority older adult population: Exploring the relationships among discrimination, mental health, and quality of life
Goetz, J. L., Keltner, D., & Simon-Thomas, E. (2010). Compassion: An evolutionary analysis and empirical review. Psychological Bulletin, 136(3), 351–374. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0018807
Harris, K., Krygsman, S., Waschenko, J., Laliberte Rudman, D., & Pruchno, R. (2018). Ageism and the older worker: A scoping review. The Gerontologist, 58(2), e1-e14. Retrieved from https://www2.lib.ku.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/ageism-older-worker-scoping-review/docview/2174059840/se-2
Hiroto, K. E., & Yarry, S. J. (2018). Cultural differences in aging experiences of ethnic and sexual minority older adults. In B. P. Yochim, & E. L. Woodhead (Eds.), Psychology of aging: A biopsychosocial perspective; psychology of aging: A biopsychosocial perspective (pp. 299-321, 357 Pages). New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company. Retrieved from https://www2.lib.ku.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/books/cultural-differences-aging-experiences-ethnic/docview/2085978998/se-2
Hoy-Ellis, C., & Fredriksen-Goldsen, K. (2016). Lesbian, gay, & bisexual older adults: Linking internal minority stressors, chronic health conditions, and depression. Aging & Mental Health, 20(11), 1119-1130. doi:https://doi.org/10.1080/13607863.2016.1168362
Hoy‐Ellis, C. P., & Fredriksen‐Goldsen, K. I. (2017). Depression among transgender older adults: General and minority stress. American Journal of Community Psychology, 59(3-4), 295-305. doi:https://doi.org/10.1002/ajcp.12138