What is Ageism?

Ageism is a form of age discrimination. It is the stereotyping of and discrimination against elderly individuals or groups.

Examples of negative ageism include:

- Older people are expected to ‘accept’ the ‘facts of aging’ .
- Older people are constantly ‘protected’ and their thoughts interpreted. They forget someone’s name and are charged with senility and patronized.
- Older people miss a word or fail to hear a sentence and they are charged with ‘getting old’, not with a hearing difficulty.
- Older people are called ‘cranky’ when they are expressing a legitimate distaste (justifiable mild dislike) with life as so many young do.

Constant and common misconception of the old:

Older people, or the elderly, are characterised to be senile, rigid in thought and manner, and old-fashioned in morality and skills.

The Truth:

1. As more people live to an older age, there are more opportunities for us to be aware of the process of ageing. It is commonly understood that a person's physical, psychological, social and spiritual dimensions undergo changes with ageing. Most organ systems in the body show a loss of the component cells as well as a reduction in functional capacity. However changes due to ageing alone usually do not result in any significant disability.

There have been some examples of those who achieved eminence in old age, such as the astronaut John Glenn who orbited the Earth when he was 77, and Thomas Edison who was still patenting inventions at the age of 81.

2. Ageing does result in a lower reserve capacity so that when the organ is subjected to damage by a disease, its ability to perform is significantly diminished. For example, the brain's nerve cells gradually reduce in number with increasing age. However this does not cause older people to suffer from memory loss or personality changes. It has been shown that an older person's ability to learn new things is comparable to that of a younger person. Hence there is no such thing as senile dementia.

3. Besides dementia, there is a long list of problems which older people face as a result of disease and not ageing. These include incontinence, falls, difficulty with walking, joint pains, poor vision and hearing.
Attributing these problems to old age is simply sweeping the problems under the carpet. The suffering still does not go away. The sad thing is that little or nothing is done because the person is "so old already!"

Origins of Ageism

The term ‘ageism’ was coined by the eminent American gerontologist Robert Butler in 1969, while he was chair of the District of Columbia Advisory Committee on Aging and was involved in setting up public housing for older people.

In two articles published, Butler described the irrational hostility displayed by a group of middle-aged, middle-class white citizens against a proposal to build special housing for older, poor, black people.

From this, he concluded the definition of ‘ageism’ to be a form of discrimination just because they are old, like how racism accomplishes this for skin colour.


- Derived partly from ignorance. Stereotyping and myths surrounding old age are explicable ‘by a lack of knowledge and insufficient contact with a wide variety of older people’

- Derived partly from the dread of growing old, death anxiety

- Maintenance of self-esteem. For the younger ones, this stereotyping of the elderly may serve as an ego-protection function. (for example, as older people threaten the young by reminding them of the transience of youth, young people will be motivated in this way to protect themselves.)

- Education levels. Research has shown that people who had lesser education tend to have a more negative attitude towards the old.

- Rationalization. Prejudices against the elders are often rationalized on a basis of stereotypes of elders. For example, forced retirement can be rationalized on the grounds that the older worker is no longer competent, slowing down, old-fashioned, etcetera.

In the Past:

- In US, during the Colonial times, there were only a small number of elderly: about 2% of the population. Yet those few enjoyed advantages because old age was given high respect and status in the major institutions of the society.

After the Revolutionary War, there was increased emphasis on equality, individual achievement, secularism, and the free market, hence, undercutting advantages and the traditional authority of the elderly in the family and community.

Again, after the Civil War, rapid modernization and urbanization continued lowering prestige and status of elders.


- At the turn of the century, there was increased competition between the older Native American workers and the younger immigrant workers. Employers interested in maximising profits started replaced the young immigrants with the older natives, intending to reduce labour costs. More and more older workers were fired and once fired; they had a hard time looking for another job because of age discrimination.
Finally, the enactment of the Social Security Act of 1935 helped put a stop to the stereotype that most of the elderly are poor.

- Popular books were published on the ‘beauty’ of aging, emphasising on the positive impacts of aging. Scientists began developing positive view of aging, such as Dr. I.L.Nascher, who stressed the body’s ability to renew itself and maintain good health in the later life.

- The 1978 rectified Age Discrimination in Employment Act prohibited the use of age as a criterion for hiring, firing, discriminatory treatment on the job.

- Medicare and Mediaid provided health insurances for the elderly

- The United States federal government has responded to issues of ageism in governance through several measures in the past. They include the creation of the 1970s-era National Commission on Resources for Youth, which was created in the late 1960s as to promote youth participation throughout communities. Recently the federal government implemented the Tom Osborne Federal Youth Coordination Act, aiming to curb redundancy among federal service providers to youth.
Other countries that have laws addressing ageism include Australia, Denmark, Ireland, and the United Kingdom.


- From John Macnicol’s Age Discrimination: an historical and contemporary analysis, it proves the perniciousness of ageism when a group of researchers disguised as an old person. Results had shown that the disguised researchers encountered hostility, prejudice, contempt and patronising sympathy.

- Even in Singapore, where filial piety is often emphasised, ageism is not just prevalent among older people and their families, but among health professionals too.

The following anecdote illustrates this: A 102-year-old man went to see his doctor for pain in his left knee. His doctor remarked, "What do you expect? You are already 102!"The man replied, "Well, my right knee is 102 years old too, and it doesn't hurt."
In this case, the doctor is rationalizing his neglect for the older patient that their illness is due to old age and will not respond to treatment.

1) Older people should not be denied treatment on the basis of age alone. 2) Their ability to recover from illnesses should not be underestimated.

In addition, studies have found that physicians often do not seem to show any care or concern toward treating the medical problems of older people. Then, when actually interacting with these older patients on the job, the doctors sometimes view them with disgust and describe them in negative ways, such as "depressing" or "crazy."

For screening procedures, elderly people are less likely than younger people to be screened for cancers and, due to the lack of this preventative measure, less likely to be diagnosed at early stages of their conditions. (1)

Though there may be surgeries or operations with high survival rates that might cure their condition, older patients are less likely than younger patients to receive all the necessary treatments. (1) It has been posited that this is because doctors fear their older patients are not physically strong enough to tolerate the curative treatments and are more likely to have complications during surgery that may end in death. (2)

- A recent survey for the University of Kent, England, 29% of respondents stated that they had suffered from age discrimination, mainly ageism. This is a higher proportion than for gender or racial discrimination.

10S15- Shermaine Ee, Choong Yong Jie, Huang Jing Jie, Bevie Wee, Aloysius Wang

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