Agesim in the Era of COVID-19

Members | July 28, 2020 | by Carol Silver Elliott

A message from LeadingAge board chair, Carol Silver Elliott.

LeadingAge adopted a bold vision statement just a few years ago. As part of an intensive planning process, the board reached for a vision that was aspirational, that embodied our commitment to the world that older adults deserve to live in, a world where ageism—that lingering “ism,”—no longer exists.

Not everyone has found this an easy vision to understand and embrace. I understand that. Ageism is not tangible, it is hard to wrap our minds around, it seems abstract and, with all that, possibly not the most vital thing for us to focus on as an association or as individuals who devote our lives to the care of elders.

I would argue that ageism is more than just a concept. It is a philosophy and a mindset that is both pervasive and damaging when it comes to older adults. Want some examples? Unlike other cultures where elders are revered, in our culture elders are minimized and disenfranchised. Their opinions are often dismissed as meaningless. We use language that portrays older people as infants—they wear diapers, they use bibs, they are “less than” anyone who is younger and stronger. They just don’t matter.

COVID-19 has underscored this is so many ways. We’ve all heard the scorn directed at elders, the resentful comments that “we all have to be in lockdown just to protect the ‘old people,’” a statement that is as false as it is discriminatory. Imprisoning our elders who live in residential settings for almost five months, as we have witnessed, is also a prime example of ageism in action. Not one elder was asked their opinion before the doors were slammed shut. No one consulted any elder, rather they were treated—and are treated—as voiceless and powerless, as deficient beings whom we must protect.

Ageism impacts the funding of services for older adults, it creates a barrier for those who might consider entering our field, it diminishes philanthropy, and it fuels the negative stereotypes that are all too pervasive in our society.

A society without “isms” treats everyone as equal, everyone as having value. When we denigrate and diminish our elders, we, too, are diminished. We fail to benefit from their wisdom and knowledge, we pigeonhole anyone elderly as a problem to be solved—not a person to be cherished. As our world changes, due to COVID and to movements driving equality, it is time for ageism to become a thing of the past, time for our vision of an America “freed from ageism” to become reality.