Ageism, which is defined as stereotyping or discriminating against individuals or groups based on their age, is prevalent globally. It comes with an extreme stigma, as evidenced by the hurdles elders face in employment opportunities and negative depictions of the elderly on social media and television. Ageism, unlike racism or prejudice, is not often directly addressed, and this harms elders’ mental health and wellbeing. Levy et al. reported that “older individuals with more positive self-perceptions of aging [...] lived 7.5 years longer than those with less positive self-perceptions of aging” (1).
One factor contributing to ageism may be that people assume that elderly individuals face greater mental or physical impairments. Additionally, people may believe that disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, are a normal part of aging. This social prejudice may lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy for elders. These “stereotypes of social isolation, physical and cognitive decline, lack of physical activity and economic burden” (2) and more can have biological effects along with psychological effects.
The proportion of individuals who seek mental health care is societally very low, and when it comes to senior citizens, the percentage drops even more. People aged 65 years or older make up less than 7 percent of the population that seeks community mental health services (3). Combined with an inability to access mental health services, ageism may drive elderly individuals away from receiving the care they may need. Additionally, a lack of treatment and care that is specifically intended for older adults may lead to ineffective care. Michael E. DeBakey of VA Medical Center found that psychotherapists often displayed negative attitudes towards working with older patients; psychotherapists described older patients as “being rigid, [...] having difficulties in learning new material, and [...] lacking the required energy and resilience for therapeutic growth” (4).
However, ageism and age bias are slowly being addressed as societies have begun to understand how they greatly affect the lives of the elderly. For instance, there has been an emphasis on the fact that medical professionals should be given better training in gerontology to provide senior citizens with the specific care they need (5). The elderly population is increasing--the percentage of people worldwide who are aged 65 or older is estimated to increase from 8.5 percent in 2016 to approximately 17 percent by 2050 (6). Further steps must be taken to ensure that these individuals are valued with respect and care by society in every part of their lives.
- Levy, B. R., Slade, M. D., Kunkel, S. R., Kasl, S. V. (2002). Longevity increased by positive self-perceptions of aging. Journal of personality and social psychology. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12150226
- Ageism. World Health Organization. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/ageing/ageism/en/
- Robb, C., Chen, H., Haley, W. E. (2002). Ageism in Mental Health and Health Care: A Critical Review. Journal of Clinical Geropsychology. doi:10.1023/A:1013013322947
- DiNapoli, E. A., Cully, J. A., Mott, J. M. (2015). Mental health utilization among older Veterans with coexisting depression and dementia. SAGE Journals. doi: 10.1177/2050312114566488
- Dittmann, M. (2003). Fighting ageism. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/monitor/may03/fighting
- (2016). World’s older population grows dramatically. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/worlds-older-population-grows-dramatically