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Don’t hesitate to speak up regarding ageism

May is Older American’s Month, the time to celebrate all older adults and recognize the contributions older people are making in our communities and across the country. According to the New York State Office for the Aging (NYSOFA), there are 935,000 individuals aged 60 and over in New York State who annually contribute 495 million hours of community service at an economic value of $13.8 billion. Sixty-four percent of individuals aged 60 and older own their own homes and have no mortgage. They contribute directly to the local tax base, support schools, local businesses, and the not-for-profit infrastructure. Individuals aged 50 and over account for the most volunteering, philanthropy, entrepreneurs, and donation activities in the U.S. out of any demographic group.

Despite these startling facts about the contributions older adults make to society, negative views about growing older are still pervasive. Ageism refers to the stereotypes (how we think), prejudice (how we feel) and discrimination (how we act) towards people on the basis of their age. Age is one of the first things we notice about other people. Ageism arises when age is used to categorize and divide people in ways that lead to harm, and erode solidarity across generations. In national poll on Healthy Aging by the university of Michigan showed that almost half of older adults reported experiencing ageism during personal interactions when others assume because of their age, they have difficulty using technology (22%), hearing and/or seeing (17%), or remembering and/or understanding (17%). 15% of older adults also reported that others assume they do not do anything important or valuable.

Ageist stereotypes in the media reinforce society’s negative views about growing older. An E-trade commercial a few years ago actually mocked older adults who continued to work later in life as incompetent because they failed to save for retirement and others showed older adults as feeble and unable to care for themselves. I guess they did not get the memo that people 55-plus now control 70 percent of all personal wealth in the United States, based on a Federal Reserve study.

In 2021, 10.6 million American’s 65+ were in the labor force. Workers 65 and older are projected to have the fastest growth in the labor force by 2026. Yet, 3 in 5 older workers either witness or experience age discrimination. Reinforcing ageism is not harmless. Older adults who continually experience ageism start to internalize feelings of worthlessness that can lead to anxiety, depression, and poor health.

Ageism will not go away by itself. Older American Month is a great time for all of us to honor our oldest citizens by standing against ageism. Here is what you can do:

1. Recognize it: To create awareness requires an understanding that there is a problem. In other words, you can’t change something you don’t know it needs changing, including yourself.

2. Speak up! If you hear something ageist, consider pointing it out in a calm respectful manner.

3. Ask yourself, “Would I like it?” Treat older people with the respect you want. Think about whether you are being patronizing or talking to them like a child. The patronizing reference to someone you don’t know as “Honey or Dear” or a nursing home resident who gets the “we” treatment, as in, “We are going to get dressed now.”

4. Be inclusive. Promote intergenerational experiences. Yarmouth, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, has a unique intergenerational model UN program that pairs an elder with a high school student to learn about a pressing global issue, such as water conservation.

5. Give yourself a break. If you’re thinking that some behavior you thought was respectful is really ageist, now you’re enlightened. And you can make the choice to behave differently in the future.

Sophie Loren once said, “There is a fountain of youth: it is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of people you love. When you learn to tap this source, you will truly have defeated age.” Growing older is something to celebrate and we can all do our part by stopping ageism. For more answers on aging, contact our NY Connects Helpline at 716-753-4471.

Mary Ann Spanos is Chautauqua County Office of the Aging director.

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