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Sensitivity Training to Counter Ageism

category_bug_ageism.gif The International Longevity Center, which is run by Dr. Robert Butler - the man who, 40 years ago, coined the term “ageism” - has issued a new report, Ageism in America. It is long and I’ve not had time to study it thoroughly, but it appears the same old, same old prejudice against age is alive and well. Some items from the report:

  • Negative language describing elders is in abundant use: fossil, old biddy, codger, over the hill, old goat, greedy geezer, coot, etc.
  • Medical slang is equally prejudicial. GOMER means “Get Out of My Emergency Room” and usually refers to elders. People in hospitals awaiting transfer to nursing homes are referred to as “bed blockers.”
  • On television, only two percent of characters are older than 65 (that age group represents 12 percent of the population and is growing rapidly) and they are usually portrayed as foolish, weak and confused.
  • About 20 percent of workers report that age discrimination in the workplace is increasing.

The health treatment of elders is shameful:

  • About a third of physicians erroneously believe that high blood pressure is normal in elders and therefore do not treat it.
  • 90 percent of people older than 65 do not receive screening tests for prostate and colorectal cancer or bone density.
  • Chemotherapy in the treatment of breast cancer is used less frequently for women older than 65 than for younger women.
  • 60 percent of elders do not receive preventive service and Congress recently eliminated funding for geriatrics education and training.
  • 90 percent of nursing homes are understaffed.

There is much work to do in correcting negative beliefs about elders in every aspect of life. Some good news is that a few organizations are helping school children understand what getting older is like and one was recently reported in the Charlotte Observer.

High school students were first asked to come up with words to describe old people. The positives were “nice,” “knowledge” and “bingo.” Most were negative: “deaf,” “lonely, “bedsores.”

In a follow-up then, the children were given “instant aging kits” which contained bulky work gloves, a pill bottle with tiny candies, a sewing kit and cardboard eyeglasses.

“With his hand gloved, Stefano Cardin struggles to remove a safety pin from a sewing kit. The glove simulates the effects of arthritis or loss of feeling. ‘It took me like 30 minutes to just take the thing out,’ he says later.

“Matthew Johnson, wearing blurry glasses that simulate cataracts, knocks a sewing kit off a desk as he walks by. ‘My depth perception was gone,’ he says. ‘I didn’t know my hand was on the desk.’

“Directed to separate tiny candles by color, students wearing yellow-tinted glasses struggle to tell them apart. ‘Oh my gosh, they all look the same,’ Morgan Stewart says. The glasses simulate the effects of yellowing of the eyes’ lenses, which occurs with age.”

School children are routinely taught about racism and sexism, but ageism is barely a blip on the radar screens of education professionals. We need to have this kind of sensitivity training in every elementary and high school in the U.S. But more, given the results of the Ageism in America study, we need it too in every medical school, corporation and on television.


Best teachers: ourselves! Gray-haired Maggie Kuhn led the way back in the 1970s. She one-upped Johnny Carson on his show, demanded less ageist t-v programming from networks, and got results. Why? There were many uppity elders of both sexes supporting her. She brought along young people too with her Gray Panthers' motto, Age and Youth in Action. Skip the report from the professional gerontologists--We have to do it!

Heh. I've had cataracts in both eyes, arthritis, hypothyroidism and high blood pressure, all in my 40s. Took five years to get a doctor to treat me for high blood pressure, five years to get them to diagnose and remove the cataracts, etc... I'm definitely sensitized to what older people go through! Although the usual comment I get is, "but you're so young!"

How is "bingo" a positive word for seniors? I'd find that pretty stereotypical, myself, and therefore negative.

How about Wisdom as a positive. We may get creakier and have more wrinkles, but we learn a lot about life.

Freda is right. Wisdom is something we elders hopefully cultivate. I know I do, now that knowledge seems to be increasingly elusive. Fact is, when I think about it, I've had an awful lot of knowledge and hardly any wisdom through most of my life. I'm trying to play catch-up with the time left.

I am stunned at the content of this blog. I never read it prior to the e-mail I sent you today -- that is why I am so stunned. I like the sound of "wisdom" -- not sure about "sages of the ages". But you are so right, more important than the nomenclature, is the need for greater sensitivity in young people and even middle-aged people to the value, experience, and respectful integration of seniors.

Hear! Hear! Haven't had a chance to read the ILC'S report, but I will. Thanks for giving us some of the items, also, the link with associated branches world wide especially interesting.

I took the liberty of writing a thank you to Pam Kelley at the Charlotte Observer. I also expressed the hope that she would continue to write about aging issues, including the individual aging variations; dispel myths and misperceptions that are ageist.

Perhaps, I'm naive, but just thought if some of these writers heard from us, they might begin to become more aware of ageism issues as worthy of attention. Writing is so quick and easy with the computer now, compared with snail mail.

Out of the mouths of ... elders:
"I've had an awful lot of knowledge and hardly any wisdom..." Oh, lucyd, haven't we all!

Good posting, Ronni, and I agree with sentiments of all your fine readers who left comments--especially joared's comment on GoldenLucy's statement, as well as with the .

When I get too up-tight about ageism in others, I frequently bring myself up short by asking, "What did I do about ageism when I was 30? 40? 50?" I hate to demand more of today's youths than I was willing/able/knowledgable enough to give when I was one. That said, society is better off when all of its members can be empathic and/or sympathetic (in the sense of understanding), one with another.

Oops! Sorry for the scrambled syntax of my first sentence, above. It should have read, "Good posting, Ronni, and I agree with the sentiments of all your fine readers who left comments--especially joared's comment on GoldenLucy's statement." That's what happens when I decide to cut and paste after previewing. *sigh*

I hear what you're saying, Cop Car. I think what some did about ageism at 30, 40, 50, probably reflected the prevailing attitudes at the time.

I would certainly agree that understanding from everybody is important. What I'm most interested in is just increasing everyone's awareness. Can't solve a problem when people don't know there is one.

I think there's been increasing ageism awareness in my lifetime. I never even heard the word ageism for many years into my adulthood. I don't want to see that momentum decrease, whatever it's pace. If anything, I want to see the pace increase.

We do need to impart some of our acquired knowledge about ageism, or how else can progress ever occur?

I think the manner we use, the way we go about letting others know of issues around ageism will make a difference in their interest and willingness to learn, change, most importantly, pass the knowledge onto their children.

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