I’ve always been very close to my grandfather. When I was growing up, he was a never-ending source of wisdom, humor, and stories from his fascinating life. When I was in eighth grade, I made a project of writing a book about his experiences based on interviews. Every couple of weeks, he and I would go out to get coffee and breakfast and just talk.
So it has been particularly humbling in the last two years to realize that, despite all of this, I have shown subtle ageism, especially as my grandfather has been getting older. I’ve found, as I’ve thought about it, that I not only spend little to no time with him (having always told myself that it was because I was too busy with work and responsibilities, though I’ve always managed to make time for other people in my life), but I haven’t given nearly enough thought to what he might be experiencing as a fellow human being as he turns eighty this year.
Of course, it was never a conscious decision on my part. I love my grandpa dearly, and talking with him has never been an unpleasant experience. It’s hard to necessarily explain what led to my eventual distance, if there’s really any justifiable reason at all. Frankly, the more I think about it, the more I’m coming to conclude that there really isn’t one.
But what is ageism? As with all societal divides, there are personal aspects as well as systemic ones. On an individual basis, ageism can be described as a lack of consideration for the elderly, an unwillingness to engage with, work with, or even “deal with” them, or even a sense of superiority or disdain for older individuals. On a systemic level, this can have far reaching implications, and as described in Ehud Bodner, Yuval Palgi, and Mary F. Wyman’s book Ageism in Mental Health Assessment and Treatment of Older Adults:
“…a number of studies over the last three decades have demonstrated the existence of negative attitudes toward older adults among psychotherapists. For example, Dye (1978) found negative views regarding the ageing process, and a preference against working with older patients, in a large sample of clinical and counseling psychologists in the USA…Two other studies eliciting assessments of standardized case vignettes from 179 psychiatrists…found that older patients consistently received less favorable prognoses than their younger counterparts and were perceived as less ideal for therapy” (15.1.1).
The book also describes how, due to heightened age anxiety and other factors, the elderly often come to hold negative attitudes toward themselves, as well as a general stigmatization toward mental health and treatment. The way we treat people often affects how they treat themselves.
A national study was conducted by the US National Library of Medicine, which found that among participants ages 60 and older, symptoms of depression and other negative mental health struggles can (and do) develop as a result of neglect and general ageism, which then ironically go untreated due to the developed stigma among older generations about confronting mental health issues, and also because younger people often overlook these symptoms and don’t bother to help their older relatives and acquaintances get the assistance that they need.
So what does all of this mean? What can we do about it? It’s easy to avoid having to answer these questions because they don’t affect us directly, but if for no other reason than personal, selfish ones, society can at least acknowledge that we all, eventually, will have to deal with the realities of growing older, and the ways in which we treat the elderly now may strongly reflect our own experiences when we reach that age.
On a less cynical level, if we can look at members of the older generations and recognize that they are people, and that they have feelings and hopes and desires and ideas of their own, and that they didn’t all suddenly disappear the moment they reached their old age, then we can begin to truly empathize with these individuals and, by enriching their lives, do the same for our own, both now and in the future. The amount of knowledge, history, and experiences we can learn about from those who’ve seen the world before us cannot be overstated, and by reaching out to the elderly, we also ensure that they can live happier lives and experience the golden years the way we all want to experience them: with dignity.
I think I’m going to go call my grandpa.
Bodner, Ehud, et al. “Ageism in Mental Health Assessment and Treatment of Older Adults.” SpringerLink, Springer, 1 Jan. 1970, link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-73820-8_15.
Lyons, A, et al. “Experiences of Ageism and the Mental Health of Older Adults.” Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports., U.S. National Library of Medicine, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28795587.