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Ageism: The Next Taboo

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We all like to think we’re not prone to discriminate against older people. But Dr. Robert Butler, who coined the term “ageism” in 1968, believes there’s a lot of it in this country.

In his 2008 book, The Longevity Revolution: The Benefits and Challenges of Living a Long Life (PublicAffairs), Dr. Butler notes that conventional wisdom reinforces several ageist stereotypes:

1. “Decreased birth rates are disadvantageous” (i.e., we need more workers to support all these old people).

2. “Welfare state-type social protections are unsustainable.”

3. “The aging population accounts for rising health costs.”

4. “Excessive medical costs are associated with the end of life.”

5. “AARP is the most powerful lobby in Washington.”

6. “Age prejudices have been ended by laws and legal actions.”

7. “Older workers are unproductive.”

8. “Old people receive more public and private support than children and youth.”

He suggests that older people need to be alert to age discrimination, particularly in the workplace. AARP’s legal office and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission can help them fight unjust actions.

I like to think I don’t suffer much from ageism, but heightened awareness recently showed me a shadow of bias. Sitting in the caf? at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., before a theater performance, I noticed an elderly woman who sat nearby. I caught myself judging her as someone boring whom I wasn’t particularly interested in meeting. Actually, she might be a truly fascinating person. Without speaking to her, how would I know?

It made me realize how often the elderly are judged as having nothing to contribute. Hordes of folks in their Third Age have had interesting lives, whether they look interesting or not. You might think about ways you, too, may be dismissing, disrespecting, or judging older clients, instead of being curious about their gifts, qualities, and interests. All of us have had lives of value.


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