Diversity and Inclusion: Age

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Ageism is a significant problem in our country. Be it conscious or unconscious, this bias has a big effect on the lives of Elders.

Americans spend millions of dollars every year on anti-aging drugs, serums such as botox, and plastic surgery in an attempt to fight aging. Many treat aging as a disease.  But we know that wrinkles are not a disease. And we know that dementia is a disease that is not a part of normal aging.

Some people argue that age doesn’t matter and use such phrases as you are “only as old as you feel,” or you are “Young at heart.” This is a form of ageism as much as assuming that frailty, dementia and stubbornness are normal traits of aging.

“Elderspeak” or speaking to elders in patronizing ways such as calling them “honey” or “sweetie” sends the message that they are incompetent and is another example of ageism.

Research has found that ageism can be harmful to the physical and mental health of older people. Marilyn Ferguson said: “Of all the self-fulfilling prophecies in our culture, the assumption that aging means decline and poor health is probably the deadliest.” By looking beyond age-based stereotypes, we can recognize that the “cranky” old man is actually suffering from chronic pain or the “sweet” old woman is struggling with depression. It allows us to treat elders as individuals with a variety of needs and preferences.

A person-centered approach recognizes that we are not defined by our age or generation. When we really know the person we bring them the honor and respect they deserve.

How can you and your organization take a more inclusive perspective on age and aging?

Some starting points might be:

  • Reflect on the use of “Elderspeak” in your organization and talk with staff about the impact on residents.
  • Ask staff to write down five words they associate with older adults, share words and reflect on those as a group.
  • Do an empathy-building exercise with staff that helps them “experience” chronic disease symptoms so the see them as symptoms of disease rather than of aging.
  • It allows us to treat elders as individuals with a variety of needs and preferences.

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