I shouldn't admit this given that someone in my line of work knows better, but this morning when I came across an organization called the National Senior Games Association (NSGA), the image that immediately came to mind was that of frail and hunched over men and women shuffling mightily and being cheered on by their children, grandchildren and caregivers. It turns out my erroneous and harmful stereotype is quite common among Millennials and the 30-something crowd, as this very well done AARP video makes clear.
In fact, many participants in the NSGA's 19-sport, biennial competition are far more athletic and fit than me -- and most Americans for that matter.
Despite the great strides that have been made combating racism and sexism, ageism in America is rampant. The term "senior" evokes widespread negative images, and maligning or making fun of the frailties associated with getting older is still considered politically acceptable.
A lapse in memory is known as having "a senior moment." Corporations dismiss experienced workers because they are perceived as being "over the hill."
Comedian Will Ferrell apparently planned a movie "comedy" about President Ronald Reagan's struggle with Alzheimer's. Indeed, making jokes about seniors that reinforce negative stereotypes is done with so much abandon that even Next Avenue, PBS's otherwise excellent website on aging, is guilty of the practice.
Hazel McCallion, who transformed the Toronto suburb of Mississauga into one of Canada's biggest cities during her long-time tenure as mayor, recently published a noteworthy piece on the harmful effects of stereotypes and sustained prejudices about seniors. She cites a recently released report by senior-living company Revera and the Sheridan Centre for Elder Research that found one in four Canadians admit treating someone differently because of their age. That's an alarming degree of discrimination, particularly for a country that prides itself on racial diversity tolerance. Unfortunately, I'm doubtful the U.S. is any more tolerant.
McCallion, who is 95 and Revera's chief elder officer, speaks eloquently about the need to pursue policies that allow older people to retain their independence and pursue vital and meaningful lives.
As Canada's population ages, we grow more and more concerned about our health-care system's ability to pay for the escalating costs of caring for older citizens. But have we stopped to consider the cost of our ageist actions? When seniors are not allowed to exercise their independence because of ageist behavior, they become reliant on our help. The more we prevent them from taking care of themselves, the more care they need. It creates a dependent mindset, and studies out of Yale University found that holding ageist views hinders a person's ability to recover from severe disability and shortens lifespan.
McCallion insightfully concludes:
We've made great strides in fighting racism and sexism. Now it's time for us to agree that ageism is getting old.
I wholeheartedly support McCallion's message. One of the primary reasons I founded CareLinx was because it would allow me to play a major role in helping keep people in their home throughout their entire life spans with grace, dignity and purpose, thereby allowing them to maintain their pride and independence. While providing affordable caregiving will help achieve this goal, it is more than offset by the constant negative stereotyping of seniors, which is scientifically proven to hurt their wellbeing and recovery rates from illnesses.
To combat ageism, I propose we banish the term "senior" and begin referring to people 50 and over as being "ageless." Check out the athletes featured on the NSGA's website and you will see there is considerable legitimacy to the moniker. They range in age from 50 to 96, and none of them fit the stereotypical image of a "senior."
That's likely because they refuse to see themselves that way.