Older Americans Month - Researchers Find Three Causes to Ageism

As someone who works with vibrant seniors daily and who is about to be Medicare eligible myself, I’m fascinated with this research on ageism and with the conversations especially about healthcare reform and who will pay and for what.

In an article from the Assisted Living Association they discuss that Princeton University psychology professor Susan Fiske and graduate student Michael North focused their research on the challenge society faces to adjust to a graying population and the intergenerational tensions that can arise. While most are familiar with descriptive ageist prejudice, in which seniors are discriminated against based on negative stereotypes (i.e. seniors are “slow” or have poor memory), the researchers focused on ageism that is based on what psychologists call prescriptive prejudice. Prescriptive ageist prejudices are beliefs about how older adults should differ from others. When older adults do not adhere to these beliefs, they are punished by those who discriminate against them.

The researchers found that the prescriptive stereotypes center on three key issues:

  • Succession, the idea that older adults should move aside from high-paying jobs and prominent social roles to make way for younger people;
  • Identity, the idea that older people should not attempt to act younger than they are; and
  • Consumption, the idea that seniors should not consume so many scarce resources such as health care.

Across six studies, the researchers concluded that younger adults were most likely to endorse these prescriptive stereotypes. The researchers noted that this was especially concerning because ageism is the one form of discrimination in which those who are generally doing the discriminating, younger generations, will eventually become part of the targeted demographic.

"If there's one take away from this research, it's that it's important to focus on the facts of these demographic changes rather than misguided perceptions," North said. "Talking about these issues helps you find constructive ways to address them." For more information, read the article: Researchers Chart New Path for Study of Ageism.

Rather than reinforce ageism, think of honoring older Americans and the vital roles they still play in so many arenas. Engaging them in new roles where their wisdom, experience and available time can benefit society. Most of all include older Americans in the lives of your family, in your organizations and your activities. Everyone will benefit.