Combating Ageism So We Can Age Out Loud

Members | May 09, 2017 | by Kirsten Jacobs

I can’t pinpoint the moment when addressing ageism became a personal passion of mine, but it’s been in my heart and on my mind for many years. So when the LeadingAge board of directors adopted the bold new vision, an America freed from ageism, I jumped at the opportunity to lead the internal task force.

Since then, I’ve had countless conversations about ageism with members and thought partners. Among the many things I’ve learned from those conversations, is that terms like ageism prompt a range of responses—some people don’t see the importance, others acknowledge the presence, but are already overwhelmed by other challenges, and still others are working every day to disrupt ageism in their life and their work. All of those perspectives are important and valid.

As we, at LeadingAge, continue to raise our collective consciousness and develop tools and resources to combat ageism, the Older Americans Month theme, Age Out Loud, encourages us to give aging a new voice. In my role at LeadingAge, it’s always my pleasure to highlight the voices of our members. Today I have the chance to share two perspectives on ageism. Perhaps one of them will resonate with you.

Ageism Across the Lifespan

I sat nervously in a cold stale conference room, my heart pounding. The dark haired gentlemen asked, “How do you expect to lead people twice your age? I am guessing you are only in your 20s.” I smiled, realizing my age would be an issue despite my achievements, experiences and strengths. “Sir,” I replied, “we serve a group of individuals who are judged on a daily basis for their inabilities based solely on their age. We fight to protect that group and change the minds of others to see abilities in spite of age. I want that chance as well.”

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The above is an illustration of ageism. Ageism is commonly recognized as discrimination toward elders. However, ageism is far more complex and exists bi-directionally across the age spectrum. Without awareness, we discriminate, invalidate and underestimate people based on a number they have been assigned in that particular year. It is important to recognize society is unfortunately separated by age, but we have the opportunity to rethink age based isolation with intergenerational collaboration across the age span.

Sena Quist is the Executive Director at Cypress of Charlotte

Ageism and Person Centered Care

Ageism, like any prejudice, is based upon assumptions about a person because they belong to a particular group or category. Ageist prejudice applies assumptions about people based on their inclusion in the group “older adult.” Yet, none of us is defined by just one aspect of our selves. We each have multiple intersecting identities and experiences, and the true uniqueness and beauty of each individual person is most evident in the complexity of those intersections.

Countering ageism requires that we recognize the unique, multifaceted nature of each person and that same recognition serves as the foundation of person centered care. To provide good care and enhance the life of each person, we must know who they are in all their complexity. This includes knowing their life history, preferences, multiple intersecting identities, and their strengths and weaknesses in health and mind. When we know each person as a complex and unique individual, we possess the keys to tapping their underlying potential and gain a roadmap toward enhancing their fullness of life.

Unfortunately, all too often in aging services work, we unconsciously adopt ageist assumptions about the elders we serve. Because we understand the aging process, we think we understand the aged. Because we have knowledge about various diagnoses, we think we know what is best for each person under our care. Our assumptions help us to be efficient and certain in our work, but ultimately they also blind us to the immense beauty associated with the complexities of identity and experience that lie within each person and limits our insight into their needs.

LeadingAge is encouraging each of us to challenge ageism in all its manifestations. Those who are committed to person centered care should be particularly willing to embrace this call. Rejecting assumptions based on categories and doing the hard work of knowing each person we serve as a complex and unique individual is at the very heart of person centered care.

Kelly O’Shea Carney is Executive Director of the Center for Excellence in Dementia Care at Phoebe Ministries