Wednesday, July 24, 2013

On ageing and ageism

I discovered recently that I am getting older. In a sense I have always known that, but lately the signs of old age are becoming more noticeable. My back now hurts more frequently, and when I wake up in the morning I am stiffer than I used to be. I admit that my eyes have never been great, so I think that doesn't count, but many other signs do point in that direction.

For many of us ageing is the prologue to our death. Two things, it is said, are inevitable: death and taxes, but while the latter can be evaded by some, the former cannot. The mortality rate of the human race is 100%. All of us will die some day. In fact, we start dying the day we are born. Aging points the way to the grave.

Aging is not only an actuarial problem but it is also political. In today's post the political aspect is my special concern. Ageism involves several related phenomena: prejudicial attitudes towards older people, old age and the ageing process; discriminatory practices against older people; and institutional practices and policies that perpetuate stereotypes about older people.

Although the term has also been used to describe discrimination against children and adolescents, it refers especially to older people and the prejudice and outright discrimination they often face. That is the sense I am using it now, in part because I fall into that category. One day, need I remind you, you will too.

I am acutely aware of the problem because I have lived for decades in many countries where older people are respected for their experience and wisdom. Not so in western societies, however, where ageism is now the most pervasive (and acceptable) form of discrimination.

In the West ageism is rarely blatant, but it is widely practiced. In the workplace it is very common, even if it is illegal. It is found everywhere in society. This is a subtle prejudice, but it is nevertheless a widely accepted reality in western countries, and increasingly elsewhere too.

It is accepted because of myths and stereotypes about older people, especially workers, that permeate much of western society. In the work place those over 50 are regarded as resistant to change, technophobic, less energetic, less creative and less innovative, are unwilling to learn new skills and new processes, and are just putting in time until retirement.

That stereotype may be true of some elderly people, but it is not true of all. It is myth that is often used to justify getting rid of older workers, and thus allowing younger ones to take their place.

Speaking personally, I have become more creative and open to new ways of thinking in the last few years. I received my PhD rather late in life, and I became more innovative since then. It was a liberating experience, and I have not looked back since.

However, I did find it difficult to find new employment because of my age. I was too old for some jobs, or so it was thought. Eventually, I did find a job where my age and experience were considered an asset, not a liability. But that took a few years of being rejected for reasons that, although not stated, were age-related.

Younger people also experience discrimination in finding employment. They are often rejected because of a lack of experience. While older workers may take early retirement, and thus permit younger persons to be hired, that is only one solution. Many older workers do not have the pensions that would allow them to step aside. Is it fair to sideline workers who are either unwilling or unable to be dismissed?

Ageism, whether directed against the young or the old, is a very serious problem that is not easily solved. Certainly legislation is not going to eradicate it in the workplace. Just as racism cannot be eliminated through legislation, the eradication of ageism will involve a change in social attitudes, so that people will not be discriminated against because of their age.

After retirement, and even before, there is discrimination against the elderly in health care. Many physicians and other health care providers do not show the same care towards older patients that they do to younger ones. Elderly people are less likely than younger people to be screened for cancers and, due to the lack of this preventative measure, are less likely to be diagnosed at early stages of their conditions.

After being diagnosed with a disease that may be potentially curable, older people are further discriminated against. Although there may be surgeries or operations with high survival rates that might cure their condition, studies have shown that older patients are less likely than younger ones to receive the necessary treatments.

The treatment of older people is often based on managing the disease rather than preventing or curing it. Because of ageism, the expectation is that the quality of health will decrease anyway, and thus there is no point in trying to prevent the inevitable decline of old age, and costly treatments are deemed unwarranted.

It is argued that in an era of belt-tightening, scarce resources should be apportioned to those who can best benefit from expensive treatments: the young, and those who still have a long life ahead of them. 

These are complex issues that are not easily resolved, but such decisions should not be based only on age. Yet is someone who is young, but has led a poor lifestyle, more deserving of receiving an organ donation than an elderly person who is still healthy otherwise?

Ageism has significant effects on the elderly. It affects their self-esteem and behavior. After repeatedly being told that they are useless, older people may begin to agree that they do not deserve better treatment, whether in the workplace or in the health system.

These are just a few of my thoughts on ageism prompted by my realization of ageing. There is much more that I could and should write about ageism. I hove not yet touched on the problem of how western societies tend to shunt the elderly into nursing homes, many of which are good, albeit expensive, but a few are places where elder abuse is rampant. Aside even from the abuse, is this the best way to treat elderly parents?

Ageism is a long-standing problem in western societies. In other societies, the elderly are generally respected and treated reverentially. Now that some members of the boomer generation have started to become seniors some attitudes may change. That generation made new rules all along, and they may do so again. 

But ageism is never going to disappear entirely. Old people will continue to experience discrimination, as will the young, but in time ageism will become as socially unacceptable as racism is today. Let us pray that both will be reduced and eventually disappear. 

That day is still a long time off, however. In the meantime, all of us who are elderly (or getting there) should enjoy ourselves. Every age has its joys and its drawbacks. Getting old is indeed a problem, but consider the alternative.

1 comment:

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