In a world where we are bombarded with instant news feeds and ubiquitous social media, discrimination in many forms seem to be ever present. One of these that has rarely been in the headlines is ageism: a bias that stereotypes aging as something that renders us wrinkled, physically and mentally diminished and without ability to constructively contribute to society and the communities in which we live.
Ageism exists, simply put, because we are all fearful of losing our youthful appearances, activities, purpose and fulfillment. As a society, we view older individuals as alternatively humorous, sad and to be avoided. From a very young age we are subtly taught to be kind to our “feeble” grandparents and treat them like something between a stranger and house pet, but more often just to ignore them. While this may seem harsh, it is an attitude that is particularly advanced via electronic media advertisements, comic strips, situation comedy series and patronizing discounts for bus rides. We are bombarded by corporate America telling us we need pills for those elderly aches and pains that are often imaginary, creams that will surely rid us of those wrinkles and bags under our eyes caused by aging, and exercise equipment that will prevent our bodies from effects of the natural aging process.
As with any discrimination there are some definitive reasons that ageism persists. Perhaps the most obvious is the desire of corporations wanting to sell as many products they would lead you to believe would delay aging as long as possible. There are more sinister reasons also. The aged demographic cohort is often viewed as the most passive and least vociferous. But perhaps the most prevalent reason ageism exists is that all humans will face reaching the end of our life span and we use ageism as a falsely assumed protection from that fact rather than celebrating another important stage of life.
To one degree or another we are all guilty of promulgating ageism. From the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, jibes and jokes in the workplace about older colleagues to the avoidance of a person utilizing an ambulation device as we walk down the street, we practice discrimination of older humans. We simply look at a person with gray hair, with a cane or whose posture is affected by osteoporosis and fearfully say to ourselves, “I don’t want anything to do with them.” We thus effectively stereotype them as being unacceptable and marginalizing their worth to our community and to society at large.
As with all prejudices, we need to first be fully conscious of it residing within us and then consciously begin to eradicate it. That journey can start by understanding that there is a purpose in every life regardless of age. As a “younger” person we gain purpose of life in our occupation, our family, our group of friends and our larger community. This certainly does not terminate when we are eligible for Social Security or Medicare. Allowing the continuation of an individual’s dignity through life purpose not only creates a stronger societal foundation, but also strengthens community bonds and enhances the lives of all members of the community regardless of age.
While the journey to eradicate ageism is often a personal one, there are steps we can take as designers of the built environment to promote awareness of ageism and minimize the effects of ageism. In the past we have viewed elderly care facilities as segregated environments and, too often, simply as “warehousing” for the elderly infirm. Of course, these environments must sufficiently provide the required care for residents, but that does not equate to barring the outside intergenerational community from participating in the lives of those residents. We can include spaces for social gatherings of all age groups, for larger community gatherings and for individual family gatherings that will eliminate the wall between ages and aging stereotypes. We can provide spaces in our designs that function as locations for community theater performances in which residents can participate alongside “younger” community members. We can provide café spaces open to the surrounding community where interaction with residents can take place. We can utilize our creative nature to actively erase the barriers between environments for the elderly and the community at large which in turn will diminish ageism.
If our designs provide ease of access by the public and functions that attract the public, they can easily see that residents have not chosen to live in the facility simply as a last step prior to end of life, but as a continuation of their full life and full purpose in life. Those who choose to partake of these shared functions will benefit from a broader understanding that growing older is something we do from the instant we are born and that this process is not one to be denigrated when we reach a particular number of birthdays. In the end, if we can each understand that age, doesn’t change the real person we are, we can bring an end to ageism.
Senior Living Expert Contributor