Reach across generational divide and “own your age” to help end ageism
At her installation as the chancellor of Sheridan College last year, renowned long-term former Mississauga mayor Hazel McCallion said, “I think 95 is a good age to start a new job.” And why not? In a time of octogenarian triathletes and nonagenarian marathoners, it’s worth asking why it’s still a surprise when an elder chooses an active, influential life.
As Ms. McCallion wrote in an article published by The Globe and Mail in 2016, “Ageism is getting old.”
Old, yet still entirely too common. A report released last year revealed that one in four respondents admitted to treating someone differently because of their age, and 42 per cent believe ageism is the most tolerated form of social prejudice. The Revera Report on Ageism: Independence and Choice As We Age, a research partnership between Revera Inc. and the Sheridan College Centre for Elder Research, also found that more than half of respondents over 76 years of age report that other people assume they can’t do things for themselves.
The research found that all Canadians say they value choice and independence. But the study also revealed that the younger people were, the less likely they were to believe that was true for people over 75.
These findings provide an opportunity for education, says Pat Spadafora, director of the Sheridan Centre for Elder Research and a member of the National Seniors Council. “We all have wishes and desires, but they aren’t necessarily the same wishes and desires – why would that change just because you’re a different age?”
While other people’s attitudes can be harmful, our own beliefs about aging may have an equally profound effect on our health and quality of life, she stresses. “We often think of ageism or any of the other ‘-isms,’ such as racism and sexism, as being perpetrated against other people. But we have learned that older adults themselves sometimes buy into self-limiting beliefs about what they can and can’t do.”
The less we think we can do, the less we do. The less we do, the less healthy we are as we age. The less healthy we are, the less we can do – and the less others may assume all older people can do.
Rejecting those limiting beliefs and “owning our age” – not being afraid to reveal it to others, especially in the workplace – is a critical intervention in that cycle, says Ms. Spadafora. Given research showing that chronic disease may be largely preventable even in later life, it’s essential to see individuals rather than ages. By focusing on individual competencies, “we can do a much better job of empowering people to age in a healthy, active way, and of enhancing their independence in those later years,” she says.
Tackling ageism is one way that senior residents and care facilities operator Revera Inc. aims to fulfill its commitment to helping its 20,000 Canadian residents live life to the fullest, says Stephen Foster, chief operating officer. “Research proves people with a positive outlook can recover from health issues much faster. They may be getting older, but that doesn’t mean they can’t do what they want to do. We’re here to work with [our residents], to help them achieve the independence they want, as we know from this research.”
Revera also partners with Reel Youth, a non-profit group that teaches filmmaking skills to young people. In 11 communities across Canada so far, Reel Youth participants spent two weekends interviewing residents in Revera facilities, creating three-minute videos about their lives. The films are then previewed at Academy Awards-style events for residents and their families. (Visit ageismore.com to view.)
The films are moving and inspirational, but just as heartwarming is the shift in generational perceptions the young filmmakers and seniors experience during the process, Mr. Foster reports. “Myths and confusion about what teenagers and seniors are like are dispelled as they work together to produce these films – and many have continued friendships.”
Whenever he watches the videos, says Mr. Foster, “I come away convinced that getting older isn’t a bad thing. We’re getting wiser. But we can’t accept self-limiting beliefs – it’s really about our mindset rather than our age.”
At the level of policy-making, he adds, “it’s critical to ensure that older Canadians are heard. We should be talking to seniors about what they want and need.”