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.