The long list of contributions provided by the baby boomers generation is so immense it is certainly deserving of respect. They’ve been called the “best generation of all time” — at the forefront of civil rights, women’s rights, been witness to the moon landing, revolutionized our nation’s socio-political landscape and are credited with creating an innovative workplace with a team-driven work culture building a competitive edge that brought economic prosperity and weathered downturns — all in the spirit of creating an improved version of the American dream.
Yet, baby boomers, now well into their senior years find themselves disregarded — often facing the brunt of stereotypes, discrimination, scapegoated and “put out to pasture.”
“Ageism is an everyday occurrence,” said Dr. Julie Allen, adjunct faculty associate, Research Center for Group Dynamics, Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan.
“It is well established that there are major instances of age-based discrimination that are linked to actually quite a broad array of poor health outcomes and … being forced to retire or move out of one’s home before one is interested in doing so,” said Allen. “But there’s another form of ageism, which I call everyday ageism.”
Older adults experience discrimination in the most serious circumstances that include health care and find themselves not given the consideration they need at the doctor’s office. “Doctors will blow them off by saying that, “oh, you’re aging … even if the issues might be serious mobility issues or other conditions and older adults often leave not receiving what they do need,” said Allen.
“Studies have shown that older adults who hold more negative self-perceptions of aging are less likely to take medications as prescribed,” said Allen. “Alternatively, if older adults feel patronized, misunderstood or actively discriminated against when they do seek health care services, they may be less likely to do so in the future. And remember, this could be based on our interactions with their health care providers or the front office staff,” Allen maintained.
American society, enamored with youth, is perpetuated in entertainment and media messages which Allen refers to as “everyday ageism.”
“Everyday ageism refers to the sort of routine ageism that older adults encounter in their day-to-day lives. So things like birthday cards with jokes about growing older, the plethora of anti-gray, anti-wrinkle and anti-aging products, or people assuming that older adults have memory issues or hearing loss. And also instances when older adults believe some stereotypes about aging and older adults themselves,” said Allen. “We see it every day with the presumptions and stereotypes about the aged with common comments which are stereotypes [and microaggressions] ‘You look good for your age.’ There is much less research done on ageism as compared to other ‘isms’” she said.
Her research found that over 90 percent of older adults have experienced ageism and found that “everyday ageism” contributes to poor health, chronic diseases, stress, loneliness and depression. Older adults can feel patronized and receive substandard quality care compared to younger patients. They are less likely to receive medically recommended tests due to the policies of health care systems and insurance companies that deny older adults essential medical procedures that are lifesaving like organ transplants and clinical trials due to their age.
“There are the 15-minute office visits and older adults like my mother are met with condescending greetings: ‘Hello little lady, what’s wrong with you today? I suspect she gets irritated,’ this kind of welcome makes it difficult for my mother to communicate,” Allen referenced a humorous occasion when an older adult went to the doctor for knee pain and was told by the doctor that it was due to age, but replied, “My other knee is just as old and it’s fine!”
Media Portrays Older Adults Negatively
During a press briefing held by Ethnic Media Services, Executive Director Sandy Close pointed out that a picture tells a thousand words, and older female politicians like Diane Feinstein and Nancy Pelosi are too often scapegoated, and portrayed in the worst way with the use of photographs on the covers of major magazines that make them look like “petrified mummies,” which can feed into a “drumbeat of voices questioning their abilities.”
There is a lot of pressure to look younger and the lack of respect for older adults, typically dismissed as “senior citizens,” especially for women, can cause self-loathing with extreme measures to stay young through plastic surgery and regular applications of unhealthyl chemical hair dye in an attempt to keep a more youthful appearance. This is gendered ageism.
The importance of maintaining a youthful and attractive appearance occurs more for women than men. Older women who feel the pressure to continue to dye their hair and take other measures including botox and other cosmetic procedures can erode their self-confidence which can impact their performance and make it more likely for them to be fired, especially in work environments that don’t value older workers.
Ageism disproportionately impacts women who get older in larger numbers, outliving men, said Dr. Louise Aronson, geriatrician and professor of medicine at UC San Francisco. Aronson is the author of the book “Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, and Reimagining Life.”
Media, she said, unfairly blames older workers for taking jobs from younger workers and dismisses the great experience that older workers provide. “There are huge amounts of data that indicate an aged diverse workplace has a happier workforce and more productivity. Yes, the younger person may be faster with new technology, but the older person is actually more likely to come to the right conclusion based on evidence.” She pointed out that older adults are perceived to be a burden but then they are denied the ability to continue to work by setting the retirement age when people are still able to work and are physically and mentally healthy and want to work.
Women of Color Have Triple Jeopardy: Ageism, Racism and Sexism
The financial reality is that women still make less money than men despite their qualifications and older women, especially women of color, are left with far less financial stability and resources at the end of their working years.
“Across all ages, black and Latino women [Latinas] make only 65% of what a white man makes for doing the exact same work and having the exact same level of education. Even black women with advanced degrees only make 70% of what white men make with advanced degrees.
“So, you start out with lower earnings, then you have maybe less earnings and certainly less contribution to your pension from your earnings. But also, you missed time on maternity leave, you missed time on sick childcare. As we saw during the pandemic, you miss time taking care of older relatives often. So, all these things add up to double or triple jeopardy for women financially, and they enter old age with less money and fewer resources,” said Aronson.
“Even after retirement, there are more burdens on women to get things done and responsibilities in the home and women of color who are more likely to be poor and, if placed in nursing homes, are likely to be placed in lower quality institutions and are more susceptible to die of everything including COVID-19 and heart attacks but [you can die from] everything,” said Aronson.
Aronson wanted to conclude on a positive note, “Yes, you could go back to get more education in your old age that keeps your brain healthy but healthy lifestyle makes the bigger difference, eating more fruits and vegetables and by being more physically active, although we often hear not to be too active, but women of all backgrounds [who eat] more healthfully could have less chronic disease and feel better.”