Getting past the senior stereotypes: U of A researcher says attitudes need to mature

It’s a stereotype as old as the hills: hit 65 and your body falls apart, your health gets dodgy and your value in society plummets.

But it’s not a stereotype that is well studied and, as the population increasingly skews to the plus side of 65, that’s a problem, says a University of Alberta researcher and nursing professor.

“We don’t know at this point how bad old age discrimination is,” Donna Wilson told CBC Radio’s Edmonton AM on Thursday.

“How many 50-year-olds have been laid off in our oilpatch recession and how many of them have not been able to find work because they have grey hair and because there’s a belief that, well, they’re kind of old-fashioned, they’re not up-to-date on new things, they’ll cost us too much and they’ll be sick? So why hire them.”

Wilson, along with Gail Low, an associate nursing professor at the U of A, did a study examining what is currently known about the prevalence of ageism in society.

The review of all existing studies on the topic, published this month in Ageing Research Reviews, found that 48 to 91 per cent of all older people surveyed experienced ageism, while 50 to 98 per cent of all younger people admitted having discriminatory thoughts or behaviours toward older people.

But the bigger takeaway was that of the 25 measurements identified in the studies done all over the world, only six looked at the prevalence of this form of discrimination. Equally significant, study sample sizes were generally too small to provide valuable insight, Wilson said.

“We don’t have population research, like census research in Canada, to show how common it is but also how harmful it is,” she said.

Wilson was drawn to the topic when she saw health-care decisions that seemed to reflect discrimination against older patients.

“We’ve tended to just brush everybody with the same kind of idea, like, ‘Well, I saw one person that got ill when they were old so I think everybody who is old is ill. And that’s a big concern right now because we have an aging population, a very rapidly aging population,” she said.

It is expected that the percentage of Canadians aged 65 and over will rise from 19 per cent of the current population to 26 per cent of the population in 2030.

This is caused by two things: a decline in the birth rate following the post-war baby boom and the vast majority of people now living to become “old.”

According to Wilson’s report, centenarians are the fastest growing sub-population group in Canada, followed by citizens aged 85 through 99.

These types of statistics are worrisome to those who foresee an incoming strain on health-care systems but, Wilson said, those fears aren’t founded in reality.

“Eighty per cent of the people admitted to hospitals in Alberta are under the age of 65, and 95 per cent of people admitted to emergency departments are under the age of 65,” she said.

Only about three per cent of older Canadians are so chronically ill that they require a nursing home, she added.  

“So we’ve got facts telling us that we shouldn’t be concerned about older people and their health, but we look at one or two [ill] people and we think that’s the way it is for everyone.”

Are you ageist? Take the test

Wilson said it is important to begin delving deeper into the prevalence of ageism in order to build enough information that governments can eventually act on, as Britain did in 2010 with its Equality Act.

The World Health Organization agrees more information is necessary and offers people a chance to test their own attitudes with an online quiz. Wilson said she hopes everyone, regardless of age, takes the quiz to see where they stand.

The first of the true-or-false statements is “All older people are the same.”

“What are your beliefs about old people and then think about what you are doing to perpetuate this age discrimination,” Wilson said.

“Someone with grey hair and some wrinkles, do you automatically think they are senile and treat them that way? Or they’re old and disabled and treat them that way? Or do you treat them like a regular person.”

Gaining self-awareness is important not just to how you treat others but also to how you will eventually see yourself, she said.

“If you believe that old people are useless and worthless, you self-internalize that. And the day that you get to 65, you tend to think that you are useless and worthless, too.”

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