Ageism is discrimination against older people on the basis of their age. It involves making narrow judgements about the elderly based on stereotypes and treating them differently based on nothing other than their biological age, which can occur at both individual and institutional levels.
Two example of ageism include:
- judging older people based on stereotypical assumptions about age, by assuming they are less physically or mentally capable just because of their biological age.
- Blocking older people from opportunities to work or take part in society in other ways on the basis of their age.
According to Loraine Green (1) Ageism can take one of three forms
- Subtle ageism: acting towards older people as if they were a homogenous group, without taking into account the wide variety of experiences and abilities among older people.
- Compassionate ageism: trying to protect older people from harm which may be well intentioned but can end up restricting their opportunities and doing more harm than good.
- Direct discrimination: where policies overtly block older people from doing certain things or people are overtly hostile towards older people.
While it is true that generally older people do suffer from deteriorating physical and mental capacities over time which can make participating in society and just life in general more challenging, the existence of ageism in society adds further barriers which makes the experience of ageing even more difficult!
One of the worst forms of individual ageism involves abuse of the elderly and there are several types.
The World Health Organisation (2) defines Abuse of the elderly (aka elder abuse) as any action or lack of action which takes place within a relationship of trust which causes harm or distress to an older person in that relationship.
A 2017 review of 52 studies from 28 countries found that as many as one in six people aged 60 or over have experienced some form of abuse.
Examples of elder abuse
- psychological abuse: involves intimidation or harassment of older people with the intention to make them afraid, and/ or failing to meet their cultural/ religious needs within institutional settins
- physical abuse: involves both direct harm to older people or anything than deliberately causes them to become unwell such as manipulating food intake or withholding medication
- financial abuse: involves either stealing from or preventing an older person gaining access to their finances.
- Neglect: involves the lack of sufficient care for older people.
Institutional ageism is systematic discrimination against the elderly by institutions. These may either be organisations specifically dedicated to elderly care or social institutions more generally such as workplaces.
Prior to 2011 in the UK employment law allowed for forced retirement at the age of 65, so it was legal for companies to overtly discriminate against people when they reached 65 by ‘retiring’ them, meaning anyone aged 65 or over was blocked from working if companies wished it.
A more indirect form ageist social policy occurs when state pensions are so low that those without sufficient private pensions are forced into claiming state benefits on top of their pensions, which effectively locks older people in to having to maintain their benefits claims. Some older people don’t claim out of either shame or because of the complexity of the process, meaning older people are more likely to live in poverty.
If older people are dependent on benefits it reinforces the stereotype that older people are in need of help, when in reality this is only the case because of state policies underfunding pensions.
Recent policy changes in the UK have reduced these kinds of institutional ageism: since 2011 people over the age of 65 now have the right to carry on working, they can’t just be sacked at the age of 65, and the treble lock to the pension means the value of the pension has increased significantly relative to earnings meaning that today older people are less likely on average to be in the bottom quintile for income than those aged under 65.
The relative underfunding of health and social care through four decades of neoliberal Tory policy could also be regarded as a form of ageism. Most older people don’t require treatment in hospital for most of their lives, for those that need extra support home visits are usually sufficient, but it is precisely this aspect of the public sector which has been underfunded.
Another form of institutional ageism is media stereotypes of the elderly, who are typically overrepresented as dependent, helpless, as objects of fun or pity, or in the case of older women, subject to symbolic annihilation given that there are relatively few positive representations of older women in the media.
This material is mainly relevant to the culture and identity option, usually taught as part of A-level sociology in the first year of study.
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(1) Lorraine Green (2016) Understanding the Life Course: Sociological and Psychological Perspectives.
(2) The World Health Organisation Abuse of Older People.
(3) Hourglass.org –