Ageism, like other forms of oppression, plays out on different levels. Ageism exists within institutions and communities, within interpersonal relationships, and can be self-directed. And it’s possible to be both a victim of ageism and be perpetuating it—likely without even realizing it.
For a primer on ageism, read: What is ageism?
Here are some examples of everyday ageism to reflect on. While some may seem minor, consider the cumulative impact of these interactions and messages. Ageism is socialized into us from an early age, so working to eliminate ageist stereotyping in our day-to-day lives is part of the work to eliminate ageism.
Telling someone they’re “young at heart” might seem like a compliment. Let’s pause for a moment and think about what it means. Perhaps you’re expressing that the person has high energy levels and enthusiasm or that they’re engaging in behaviours or activities you associate with youth. Why do we associate those things with youth? Older people are not a homogenous group. Telling someone they’re young at heart as a compliment feeds into the idea that young = good and old = bad.
This is something that happens almost automatically. Someone tells you their age, and it’s older than you thought because you were judging their age based on their appearance. You may believe expressing surprise is a compliment. But again, pause and consider that what’s being implied is that there’s something wrong with looking “old.” You can’t tell someone’s age by their appearance, and what does it matter anyway?
This relates to the first two examples. You might be surprised to learn about an activity that an older person is doing. That’s because subconsciously, we’ve adopted the idea that some things are for the young. We might think that as we get older, we’re supposed to slow down or be physically or mentally unable to do certain things—like this is some universal truth. It’s not.
Why would you want to stay 39 forever unless you thought getting older was negative? Please don’t feel bad if you’ve said this. You’re not alone. It’s just a chance to reflect on internalized and self-directed ageism.
Are we ready to let go of the idea that there’s appropriate clothing based on age and just let people dress as they want? If it’s not harming anyone, why do we care?
This is blatantly ageist and wrong. It implies that older people can’t change or learn new things. It reflects the ageism in workplaces where training or advancement opportunities may not be offered to older workers. We don’t lose our ability to learn and change as we age.
Elderspeak describes the tendency to speak louder, and slower and sometimes change the actual words used when talking to an older adult. This relates to infantilizing, which is treating someone as a child. Unless you know someone needs you to speak louder or slower because they asked you to, then you shouldn’t assume you’ll need to simply because of the age you perceive them to be. And if someone doesn’t understand what you’re saying, they’ll ask you to explain it again.
Raise your hand if you’re guilty of saying “I’m so old” when reflecting on an ache, pain or a momentary memory issue. Or, perhaps you’ve said to a friend or family member, “You’re so old” when they didn’t feel like going out or doing an activity. The phrases are so common that most of us don’t pause to consider what we’re saying. The word ‘old’ is often used to mean something negative. When people say, “you’re so old”, they don’t usually mean “you’re so wise, valuable, strong and adaptable”. This is one that you can catch yourself doing – and then correct yourself. Others will learn from your example.
It’s not uncommon to have things about yourself that you want to change. Total self-love can feel like a lofty goal. Recognize, though, that your appearance changes naturally over time.
Wrinkles are normal and not a sign of weakness or unworthiness. (yes, sun exposure and smoking can accelerate normal skin aging, but still not a sign of weakness or unworthiness!). Why is it that we don’t see wrinkles as beautiful?
Hair colour is another factor that comes up. Thankfully, there’s been a movement towards embracing natural hair colours.
The size of the anti-aging industry is an indication of just how big this issue is. The global anti-aging market size was valued at US$ 60.42 billion in 2021.
Anti-aging products and procedures are often more targeted at women – this is gendered ageism. Anti-aging is anti-living because aging isn’t an illness to overcome—it’s natural. It’s tricky though because you are bombarded with messages that any sign of age is a bad thing and that you should change it. Resisting that message is bold and progressive.
Working on your perpetuation of ageism is a good step and something we can all take on. For more examples of how you might experience ageism and what to do about it, read: 5 signs you’re experiencing ageism and what to do about it Preventing and addressing ageism is embedded in our advocacy work at RTOERO and is a focus of the RTOERO Foundation.