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Even though Bollywood stars  Rekha and Hema Malini have graced Indian cinema screens since the early 1970s and 80s, they continue to seem age defying.

At 67 and 73 respectively, these yesteryear heroines often are visible in carefully crafted public images, flaunting lustrous hair and luminous skin in faces unravaged by time.

Lookism Is A Form Of Gendered Ageism

It’s not surprising that these celebrities control their media appearances, because life in the spotlight is unforgiving.  It’s  a form of gendered ageism called ‘Lookism’ which emphasizes the importance of youth and attractive appearance.

What social media and newsfeeds make clear is that as they age, public figures draw close scrutiny and derision for perceived shortcomings in their appearance and ability.  

Remember the inevitable lists of “celebrities  who haven’t aged well”?

Ageism Is Everywhere

But ageism is not confined to the tabloids. Recently, longtime political leader and California Senator Diane Feinstein came under fire in the mainstream press for failing to look youthful.

The June edition of New York magazine used an unflattering image of the senator that magnified her appearance of oldness. It drew attention to her age to imply she was experiencing memory loss, and questioned Feinstein’s ability to serve as CA’s Senator.

Below an ageist picture of Feinstein (88) alongside a vibrant image of her younger self, a caption asks, “Where did it all go wrong?

Ageism surfaced in a NYT editorial that blamed iconic House Speaker Pelosi for leading a gerontocracy in Washington DC.  Its authors speculated that her age (Pelosi clocks in at 82), undermined her cognitive ability. They cast doubt on her political judgement and leadership skills.

Gerontocracy Is An Ugly Term

It literally means “a rigid clutch of old people holding on to the status quo,” explained Paul Kleyman, the National Coordinator of the Journalists Network on Generations (JGN).

Paul Kleyman (source: paulkleyman.com)

At a July 15 EMS briefing that explored how media and society discriminate against older adults, Kleyman said age bias in the media is reflected in stories which call for the removal of older leaders in their 70s and 80s, because “they are presumed to be out of touch with the country’s needs.”

However, this wave of ageism which scapegoats older adults for society’s ills is not limited to mainstream media’s political and economic reporting. Ageism in the US affects underlying systems in healthcare, employment discrimination, and vital growth areas of our society.

Unsurprisingly, in an era where celebrities and politicians need an anti-aging arsenal to keep the mainstream press at bay, older adults routinely encounter everyday ageism in their daily life.

Everyday Ageism Is In That Birthday Card

It manifests in birthday card with jokes and messages that play on stereotypes about aging, like the one that reads,

“Do you know why old people drive so fast? Because they have to get there before they forget where they are going.”

Everyday ageism is packaged in products that  advocate anti-graying or anti-aging promises to revive, revitalize, and regenerate youthfulness.

Or, they appear in newsfeeds, like a recent Tweet from Daily Choices offering fashion advice on how to avoid looking 60!

Dr Julie Ober Allen, Assistant Professor of Health Promotion at the University of Oklahoma studies aged-based discrimination. She found that 65-to-80-year-olds reported experiencing more ageism watching TV, browsing  the internet or reading a magazine. In a national Poll on Healthy Aging, 93% of older adults reported that they routinely experienced a broad array of everyday ageism on a daily basis.

Dr. Julie Ober-Allen, PhD, MPH (source:umich.academia.edu)

Ageist messaging embedded in these channels negatively impacted older adults and served “as a prime source of stress,” remarked Allen.

Everyday Ageism Influences Poor Health Outcomes

Allen said that everyday ageism accelerated aging in older adults who believe negative perceptions of aging. Studies show that everyday ageism influenced  poorer health outcomes with increased diagnoses of diabetes and heart disease.

Ageism is embedded in the healthcare system, added Allen. For example, fifteen-minute primary care visits are too short for provider and patient to explore health issues. Older adults may feel misunderstood or actively discriminated against in interactions with their provider.

Questions like “Hello little lady. What’s wrong with you today?” can seem patronizing to older adults.

Sometimes physicians brush off long term covid in older adults as ‘signs of aging’, just as they do complaints  about aches and pains, said Allen. So older adults may be less likely to seek care, take prescribed  medications, or schedule medically indicated diagnostic tests.

“It’s documented that healthcare issues in older adults do not receive the medical treatments they need -whether its covid, mental health or mobility,”  because everyday ageism in the healthcare system creates barriers.

For non-English speaking South Asian seniors, language poses an additional barrier. Aging ethnic adults need an advocate when accessing medical services in most states, unlike in California, where a clinician is not legally allowed to see a non-English speaking patient unless a qualified interpreter is present.

“There are a lot of assumptions that are linked to age,” said Allen. “Assessing cognitive capacity is more important than just looking at age alone.”

Ageism Impacts Women More Than Men

Dr. Louise Aronson, MD, MFA (source: UCSF Osher Center for Integrative Health)

Ageism disproportionately affects women, said Dr.Louise Aronson, geriatrician and Professor of Medicine at UC San Francisco. According to 2016 data, people 65 and up, there are 79 men for every 100 women. So, “women get older in significantly larger numbers than men.”

But while men are likely to die, women are more likely to develop chronic diseases as they grow old, to have functional limitations and disabilities, and lower wellbeing. They are more likely to experience loneliness without a partner, and become institutionalized in places that have lower quality of care.

However, gendered ageism puts women at a disadvantage long before they get old.

“Women start out with lower earnings” because they are evaluated as being less valuable and less competent than men, said Aronson, the author of ElderhoodRedefining Aging.

Financially, women make less money than men, averaging 82 cents on the dollar for all ages. Lower earnings result in women making less contributions to their pension because of time lost from taking maternity leave,  spent on childcare, or looking after older relatives.

“90 % of the poorly paid caregivers are women,” said Aronson. They do most of the caregiving in this country as informal or unpaid caregivers, even after retirement.

For older women of color, the financial future is jeopardized by a triple threat of racism, sexism, and ageism said Aronson. Black and Latino women across all ages only make 65% of what white men make for the exact same work and exact same level of education. Even black women with advanced degrees make only 70% of what white men with similar degrees do.

Financially, women “enter old age with less money and fewer resources.”

Moving On From The Intolerance of Ageism

Retirement was set when the average American died at age 67. With Americans living longer, and people healthier both mentally and physically, we need to rethink what it means to get older, agreed experts on the panel.

Average life expectancy, even  in developing countries, is almost two full generations longer than 100 years ago.

“Maybe the fault lies in our lack of imagination,” said Kleyman. “We need a new perspective on aging  in this country that explores alternatives that fit our new age of mass longevity,”

Patricia M. D’Antonio, BSPharm, MS, MBA, BCGP (source: geron.org)

While it’s important to call out ageism when we see it, we need to tell a more complete story that demonstrates creative solutions and ingenuity, remarked Patricia D’Antonio, VP of Policy and Professional Affairs at the Gerontological Society of America, and the Executive Director of Reframing Aging.  She called for positive ways to communicate about aging.

“We can move on from ageism by changing people’s understanding of ageism.”

Ageism happens both ways, toward older people and toward younger people, added D’Antonio. So younger folk need to acknowledge the accumulated wisdom  of older people, while older adults need to accept the challenges of growing old.

“We must recognize that it’s a good thing to have a hearing aid or access to a wheelchair for example.”

“I think is really important for all of us to recognize is that we are all aging.”

Meera Kymal

Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents and Founder/Producer at DesiCollective. At India Currents, she covers immigration policy and reform, civil rights, the pandemic, and climate...