Ageist Stereotypes: What to Watch Out For

By Kathryn Stambaugh

Geriatric Services Director

This year’s theme for Older American’s Month is “Aging Unbound” — an invitation to celebrate the joys of growing older and reject harmful and ageist stereotypes.

For many people, age brings knowledge, experience, and perspective. At the same time, ageism – defined as stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination on the basis of age – can have a significant negative impact on health and wellbeing. It’s a widespread problem: a 2020 poll found that 82% of adults age 50-80 experience ageism daily.  And for many, the negative effects of ageism are compounded by experiences of racism, sexism, and homophobia.

Research shows that ageism (like other “isms”) has a profound negative effect on health. There are many reasons, including scarcity of providers trained in geriatrics, exclusion of older adults from clinical trials, and implicit (or explicit) bias that normalizes pain and poor health among older people.

How can healthcare do better? Changing the Narrative, a campaign to eliminate ageism, offers these suggestions:

  • Become educated about ageism and the impacts on health and wellbeing. This interview with UCSF geriatrician Louise Aronson is a great start.
  • Identify and work to eliminate our own ageist beliefs about ourselves and others (Project Implicit offers a confidential online implicit bias test)
  • Avoid age-based assumptions about a person’s unique functional ability. Ask older patients about their health and wellness goals, and work with them to create a plan.
  • Communicate respectfully:  Acknowledge caregivers but talk directly to the older person. Avoid “elderspeak” (slow, patronizing speech with elevated pitch and volume).
  • Examine workplace cultural practices through the lens of anti-ageism.
  • If you are in research, include older adults in clinical trials.
  • Support training and early career experiences with older adults for healthcare professionals.

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