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Breaking the Cycle of Ageism through Public Policy

Updated: Mar 25

Public Policy needs to begin addressing how Ageism is impacting our societies.


“Baby Boomers Stole the American Dream, But Young People Can Take it Back.” - Schiller


Headlines like these, which stereotype older adults as always being politically burdensome and out of touch, are certainly not in short supply on the internet nowadays. The “young vs. old war” is just one of the many examples of deep-rooted ageism in our society. According to Douglas Kimmel of the American Psychological Association (1988), ageism arises when people are categorically divided based on their age in ways that lead to harmful stereotypes, disadvantages and injustice. We observe ageism through three interrelated aspects—prejudicial attitudes, institutional attitudes and behavioral changes. 


Unfortunately, prejudicial attitudes related to ageism are still very apparent in modern media. For example, pharmaceutical advertisements often show the aging process as being associated with becoming vulnerable and burdensome. This messaging is so ingrained in our society that most people simply accept it to be concrete truth. Kimmel (1988) discusses the idea that institutional practices and policies often knowingly or unknowingly perpetuate such prejudicial attitudes, and this subsequently reduces the opportunities of many senior citizens and undermines their personal dignity. These practices could present as the healthcare system under-treating patients (for example, incorrectly labeling certain symptoms as signs of “normal aging”) or over-treating patients, such as by suggesting patients undergo procedures that are actually unnecessary. 


When people are continuously ignored by society or treated like vulnerable victims of their age, they tend to withdraw socially, become disinterested in physical or mental activities, and experience an overall decrease in quality of life. This behavioral change could be the result of internalizing the negative perceptions of the aging process perpetuated by the first two aspects of ageism—prejudicial attitudes and institutional practices. According to Carla Drysdale of the World Health Organization, in 2021, it was estimated that over 6.3 million cases of depression worldwide could be ascribed to the effects of ageism. 


Public policy needs to focus on integrating the older population and treating them as valuable members of society. Community-based organizations that expand public sector support for volunteerism at older ages, such as the AmeriCorps Seniors, need more funding. According to an article by the American Society on Aging, investing in multi-generational federal education initiatives also creates cross-generational empathy and increases feelings of community togetherness. 


The healthcare system should also be reconfigured to focus more on serving patients based on need rather than based on age. For example, in the U.S., universal prostate cancer screening is provided for all older adults; however, these screenings have also led to overemphasized diagnoses of harmless tumors and resultant surgeries that cause harmful complications. Similarly, diabetes medication is often overprescribed to older patients, leading to problems such as hypoglycemia. Jeff Hoyt, the Editor in Chief of SeniorLiving.org (2022), stated in a recent article that the United States is currently estimated to have spent around $158- $226 billion on the “over-treatment” of older adults. At the same time, the number of clinical staff members in senior services and the amount of investment in need-based healthcare programs for the poor are decreasing.


The American Society on Aging also emphasizes that policymakers should be more aware of ageist language in law-making and should work towards more age-neutral societies. Putting an end to differentiating people based on age alone would make very apparent the significant impacts that ageism has on America’s communities.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author.


Sources


“Asa's Policy Priorities-Tackling Ageism.” American Society on Aging, 


Drysdale, Carla.“Ageism Is a Global Challenge: UN.” World Health Organization, 18 Mar. 2021, https://www.who.int/news/item/18-03-2021-ageism-is-a-global-challenge-un 


Hoyt, Jeff. “How Ageism in Health Care Is Affecting Society.” SeniorLiving.org, 20 May 2022, https://www.seniorliving.org/health/ageism/


Kimmel, Douglas C. “Ageism, Psychology, and Public Policy.” American Psychological Association, Mar. 1988, https://psycnet.apa.org/ 


Peterson, Johnathan C., et al. “Do People Really Become More Conservative as They Age?” The Journal of Politics: Vol 82, No 2. 1 Apr. 2020, https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/706889


Schiller, Ben. “Baby Boomers Stole The American Dream, But Young People Can Take It Back.” Fast Company, Fast Company & Inc, 22 Mar. 2018, https://www.fastcompany.com/90802706/how-companies-are-redefining-the-idea-of-culture-in-the-workplace 


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