Ageism is the stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination against people on the basis of their age. Ageism is widespread and an insidious practice which has harmful effects on the health of older adults.
– Sharron Brandrup, Co-Founder/Executive Director – Bessie’s Hope


In America, ageism is prevalent because western cultures tend to be youth-centric, emphasizing attributes like individualism and independence. However, many other cultures are less prone to ageism. For instance, respecting the elders is part of the actual law in China. The Japanese culture values the elders. Appreciation for elders has been ingrained in families and their children, making Japan one of the kindest places in the world for seniors. Older people are valued as assets in Scotland. Their voices are heard, and they are supported to enjoy full and positive lives in family settings.

How does ageism affect older adults?

Age discrimination can be very hurtful to the self-esteem of aging individuals and can even take a toll on their health. Many seniors are treated like second-class citizens by younger generations. They are often talked down to or even made to feel invisible because of their age.

A 20-year study on perceived age discrimination, by Becca Levy, PhD, found that 63% of participants over age 53, reported feeling discriminated against, with the main cause cited being their old age. The study also found that age discrimination quickly leads to feelings of depression and stress and causes lowered mental health as well as lower self rated health, and when older individuals were exposed to positive stereotypes about their age they showed significantly better memory and balance than those exposed to negative views. What is even more astonishing is that seniors with positive perceptions of aging live 7.5 years longer than those with negative views.

How to recognize ageist comments?

If left unchanged, ageist comments can erode the self-confidence of older people and make them feel ostracized. So how can we learn to recognize ageism and how do we avoid it? Here are some ageist words, phrases and non-verbal cues that should be avoided.

1. Offensive Descriptions and adjectives. Avoid these words because they are plain mean and hurtful.

Old hag, old-timer, little old lady, old coot, over the hill, old foggy, decrepit, ancient, biddy, codger, crone, fossil, geezer, old fart, old goat, prune, senile old fool, eccentric, feisty, spry, feeble, grandmotherly, grandfatherly and vegetable.

2. Seemingly kind but still offensive endearments. Older people don’t like being treated like babies. They are still mature individuals who deserve respect. Instead of calling them sweetie, honey, dear or young lady, call them by their names Ms. Smith or just plain Judith.

3. Generalization. As much as we don’t want to be stereotyped by our race, ethnicity or our gender, or be lumped into one description such as “all millennials are apathetic” or “all baby boomers are junkies”, we shouldn’t generalize older people by what other older people can and cannot do, what they have and don’t have.

“Old dogs can’t learn new tricks.”
“Old people are perpetually out of touch”

4. Uncharacteristic for their Age. Though sometimes it may be hard for them, older people can still learn and do new things. When they are treated like they shouldn’t be able to do some things, it’s also ageist.

“A quick-witted 85-year-old”,
“An agile 75-year-old”,
“Feisty old lady”,
“Wow! She’s 78 and still takes online classes.”
“This little old lady still parties like a college kid.”
“He is 80 years young.”
“Can you believe she’s 60 years old?”
“60 is the new 30.”

5. Assuming they’re weak. Comments like the following, though said with good intentions, suggest they shouldn’t be able to do certain things because they’re supposed to be fragile. Not all older adults are weak. Some even maintain physical fitness up to a hundred. Saying something like this just reminds them of the imminent decline of their health.

“I’m so glad you’re still up and around!”
“You’re still agile! How’s your health?”
“You shouldn’t be doing that.”

6. Lying in good faith. We are all aging and everyone is older than someone. It someone says they’re not old when they are relatively older to others, instead of it being a compliment, it becomes a reminder o the stigmas that aging bring. Deceiving older people won’t make them any younger.

“You could pass for much younger.”
“Oh, you’re not old.”

6. Oversimplifying words. This is when we assume that all older people have problems with understanding so we tend to speak in very simple words, like teaching a child how to talk. At times, we also over explain things that don’t need explaining. Remember that older people are not mentally slow. According to Gerontology Society of America (GSA), we don’t need to change our speech and vocabulary to communicate with older adults. “Older adults maintain their existing vocabulary or continue to improve it,” wrote GSA. “They have no problem understanding complicated words that members of other groups, there is no need to simplify words to use.”

7. Speaking to others about an older person’s situation when he or she is in the same room. Aside from being plain rude, people assume that older people cannot understand their own situation and that another person (maybe younger) is required. Doctors and health care providers usually commit this mistake. If there is someone else accountable in the area, doctors pretend older adults are not there.

8. Jokes. Every time when a person is joking about older people, he or she is actually disguising emotions and thoughts, deliberately or subconsciously about the horrors of aging.

“Grandma is so wrinkled she needs a bookmark to find her mouth.”
“My old Uncle Ed still whistles at girls but can’t remember why.”

Article reprinted with permission from:
Sharron Brandrup, Co-Founder/Executive Director – Bessie’s Hope
Website: BessiesHope.org


More about Bessie’s Hope

Bessie’s Hope (formerly Rainbow Bridge) began with a spiritual vision received by Linda Holloway, one of the co-founders. She heard a distinct voice repeating, “Bring them together, the young and the old”, and she saw what was to become the work of Bessie’s Hope. Inspired by her grandmother’s tragic nursing home experience and by the loneliness she observed in nursing homes, Linda, and co-founders, Sharron Brandrup and Marge Utne, worked to create an organization that would bring community awareness and participation into nursing homes.

Sharron and Linda began taking groups of children to visit nursing home residents in 1989. Evidence of the life-transforming benefit to both populations led to the formation of a 501c3 non-profit corporation in 1993. In the summer of 1994, Linda’s and Sharron’s original musical entitled “Rainbow Bridge, an Intergenerational Musical” was produced at the Denver Center for Performing Arts. It attracted tremendous media attention, both locally and nationally. In the fall of 1994, the Rainbow Bridge volunteer programs were officially begun.