“I didn’t have enough candles so I just lit the cake on fire.” We’ve all seen the birthday cards. I know I’m guilty of having bought a card or two thinking they’re a laugh. But what hadn’t crossed my mind though was whether or not this age humour was a tad offensive? Age prejudice, or Ageism, is one those true ironies since we all hope to one day become part of the group.
The irony is probably one of the reasons age-related stereotypes are so widespread and socially accepted. If we were each to get a piece of paper and write down all of the things characteristic of the elderly – hard of hearing, slow, fragile, bad memory, poor health – these would likely all appear. There’d, of course, be a number of positive ones like wisdom, kindness, and humility, but negative stereotypes certainly exist whether we want them to or not.
3 ways we unknowingly participate in Ageism
Before you worry this is one of those high-charged critical articles, it’s not. It’s a gentle reminder that elderly individuals face negative stereotypes that may be socially acceptable, but are also sometimes hurtful or condescending. The aim of this list is to help us all be mindful of ways we unknowingly participate in ageism. After all, the first step to recovery is awareness.
As we age, our hearing declines. In fact, over half of Americans over the age of 75 have some difficulty hearing. It could come from the compounding effect of loud noises; sometimes it’s more medical. Either way, it’s a reality of aging. And though you may truly have to speak up when talking to a loved one or friend who is hard of hearing, we must be careful to not be patronizing in our delivery.
Common examples of elderspeak:
- Assuming every older individual has difficulty hearing
- Talking too slowly and mouthing the words
- Using pronouns like “we” or “us.” E.g., How would we like a little snack before lunch?
- Using pet names like “dear” or “sweetie,” names normally reserved for those younger than you
- Repeating statements multiple times and showing frustration
- Talking in a “sing-song voice” that you’d use with a toddler or when talking to your pet (don’t tell me I’m the only one that talks to my cat)
- Inappropriate questions that assume a lost role. E.g., what did you used to be like?
A good rule of thumb is, if you wouldn’t speak to a colleague like that then you might be engaging in elderspeak.
2) Ageism in the workplace
A common stereotype of older individuals is that they are set in their ways and not open to change. There’s no moment in life where we become impervious to change, it’s just that as you age you typically have more routine, responsibilities, and have mastered a particular skillset with your decades of work. Whereas, younger individuals are simply in a life stage where everything is a change. Remember, an open mind isn’t dictated by age. Experienced individuals are actually a huge resource because they have wisdom and intuition from decades of being in their respective industries and roles. There’s a lot of opportunity for mentorship and knowledge transfer that Generation Xers and Millenials are eager for in the workplace.
3) Insensitivity to physical and mental limitations
The longer we live the more likely we are to experience physical and mental limitations. It’s another reality of aging. Aging isn’t always quick or significant, but it does affect us all and can be extremely frightening. The health and memory issues that may arise in our golden years aren’t all as automatic as we think, and even so, it’s important to acknowledge how truly frustrating it is to not be able to carry out the daily activities of living as fast or as effortlessly as when we were young. We wouldn’t make a jest of someone who is 30 years old and frustrated with physical or mental struggles, so it really shouldn’t be something we’re so quick to laugh about for someone going through the natural process of aging.
Though there is a time and a place for poking a little fun (being able to laugh about yourself and situation can be rather healthy and stress-reliving), it’s important to make sure everyone else finds it as funny. And with these three tips, we can all be a bit more mindful around the elderly. After all, we’ll hopefully be part of the group ourselves some day.
What other ways can we be more mindful of how we act and speak to those in their golden years?
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