We all age differently. Yet, we often hear older people being talked about as if they are all the same: sick, unable to learn new things, and resistant to change. Stereotypes are powerful and can influence our attitudes, limiting our beliefs about what we think people are capable of.
During COVID-19 I have noticed dominant stereotypes in the media of older people as vulnerable and frail and have seen how this has influenced policy decisions. For example, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, people over 65 were not allowed to go outside, with no exceptions for grocery shopping, pharmacy visits, or even taking out the garbage. (1) Over 200 older people were fined for leaving their homes. (2)
On this year`s International Day of Older Persons, we want to challenge ageist assumptions and expose ageism. Here are four common assumptions about older people and why we must tackle them.
Physical activity as we get older
When I started working on ageism, I first became aware of my own unconscious bias during a yoga class. A woman in her 70s was next to me and I thought to myself “this class will be too hard for her”. I made an instant judgement based on her age, which was a mistake because she was at ease in the class, whereas I was the one who struggled.
Stereotypes like this can impact an older person’s health. Evidence has shown that such negative beliefs can adversely affect an older person’s health. Older adults with negative attitudes about ageing could live 7.5 years less than those with a positive attitude. (3) While older people with a positive view of ageing, tend to participate in physical activity more frequently. (4)
Of course, our bodies change as we get older and we might not be as good at certain activities as when we were younger, but we shouldn’t assume that because we are older, we are unable to be active.
Technology and older people
Another common stereotype about older people is that they don’t know how to use technology. Assuming that young people are computer geniuses and older people are technologically inept is not helpful. There are some older people who are tech-savvy, just as there are younger people who are not.
Assuming older people can’t use technology, has a bigger impact than we might think. Technological developments are influencing the nature of work and if people are considered insufficiently skilled or motivated to engage with digital technology because of their age, they may have fewer job opportunities, be overlooked for training or discriminated against because of this underlying assumption. (5)
Assuming older people can’t use technology also means that they are often not considered in the design of new technology. This could ultimately affect their ability to participate on an equal basis with other members of society as we move to participate in new ways online. (6) As services continue to move online, we must make sure older people aren’t left behind.
Stereotypes that limit our autonomy
Benevolent ageism is another form of patronising treatment that older people experience. It is often unintentional and can seem innocent, but can be extremely harmful. Older people are often assumed to be fragile and need to be protected. This might mean that family members think they know what is best and that they are doing the right thing. But failing to let older people make decisions for themselves is paternalistic and threatens older people’s autonomy and independence.
The choices we make, and the actions we take constitute a significant part of who we are. We must have the freedom to make decisions for ourselves, within family contexts and going about our lives, no matter what age we are.
One older woman in Argentina told us how she used to get out of the house a lot, doing her own chores, but then her children started to take over. She said “I felt as if my hands and feet had been tied. And at night I started having a lot of nightmares.”
Older age doesn’t equal vulnerability
We are often described as frail and vulnerable when we are older. Throughout COVID-19 we have seen policymakers, the public and the media stereotyping those over the age of 70 as helpless, frail, unable to make decisions for themselves, and unable to contribute to society. But old age should not, in and of itself, be used as a marker of frailty and vulnerability. Ageing is a process that we all experience in different ways. Some of us might need extra support to walk or have different health issues, but some of us won’t. Stereotyping all older people as vulnerable fails to acknowledge our differences.
Let’s get rid of the labels
It is normal to make assumptions, we do it to simplify and make sense of the world around us. But assumptions about ageing and older people can have negative consequences, even if we don’t mean them to. This has come to a head in the response to COVID-19 and has exposed the ageism that exists in society and highlighted the need to tackle it. On this International Day of Older Persons, I’m going to take time to consider my own assumptions and pledge to get rid of the labels we give older people. I hope you will too.