The Epidemiology of Ageism

Like COVID, ageism is widespread, easily transmissible, and once it takes hold, tenacious and pernicious. Here's how we should treat it.

 

If there’s anything that the last two years have taught us, it’s that a pandemic can’t easily be ignored, even by those who steadfastly seek to deny its existence. By now, whether we subscribe to any of the basic guidelines or not, most of us know about masking, social distancing, using therapeutics, and most important of all, getting vaccinated and boosted.


But COVID isn’t what I want to address. While I’m thoroughly committed to following safety measures to avoid getting or spreading that virus, it’s another dangerous illness that continues to haunt me.


As it turns out, ageism is proving to be a social disease that has a lot in common with COVID. It’s widespread, easily transmissible, and once it takes hold, tenacious and pernicious.


Just how widespread is it? Check out this graphic from the University of Michigan's National Poll on Healthy Aging:

(© 2022 The Regents of the University of Michigan. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.)

Any other "disease" that afflicted 82% of Americans would be a national catastrophe and cause for immediate, unquestionable, nationwide emergency action. Not even COVID comes close.


So what can we do about it?


Here's an idea: What if we treat the plague of ageism the same way we treat COVID? What if we take those same pandemic protection/prevention protocols of which we now are so conscious and adapt them for this other scourge, which has been around not just for two years but for centuries? Maybe we should set up a special CDC (Centers for Discrimination Control and Prevention) of our own and create a few guideline strategies for everyone to follow.


Guideline Strategy #1: Self-educating. Let's learn from reputable experts about what this ageism virus is, how it's contracted and spread, the serious harms it causes, and how to eradicate it and prevent its reemergence. There are plenty of great resources (books, articles, videos, blogs, podcasts, campaigns, etc.) to help us understand these issues, all found on an extremely handy one-stop website, the Old School Anti-Ageism Clearinghouse.


Guideline Strategy #2: Masking. Understanding that we can inadvertently spread to others the age biases we may have, we should be mindful of "masking up" by refraining from using ageist language and behaving in ageist ways toward others.


Guideline Strategy #3: Social distancing. Just as we don't want to transmit age prejudice, we should likewise be mindful about exposing ourselves to those people, media outlets, marketers, and businesses that promote the fear-based messages of ageism. Let's boycott them and their products and activities, which deny or demean the aging process by excluding, belittling, or otherwise marginalizing people because of their age. And let's call out such purveyors of discrimination and spread the word about who they are.


Guideline Strategy #4: Using therapeutics. If and when we speak or behave in an ageist manner (and we all do, from time to time), we should take the responsibility to stop those actions from turning into habits. An effective way to do this is to identify the false stereotype upon which we're basing our judgment and replace it with the realistic view that each person is an individual rather than a representative of a homogenous group that doesn't actually exist.

Guideline Strategy #5: Vaccinating and boosting. The best inoculation against the future spread of the scourge of ageism is to boost our interpersonal immunity by forming strong, positive relationships with people of all different ages from toddlers to the oldest old. Doing so ensures that ageism --- which can infect children as young as 3 years old --- doesn't take hold and perpetuate indefinitely.


As a society, we're slowly managing to get stronger control of a potentially deadly virus that affects us all. I'm referring, of course, to COVID.


Let's waste no time being able to say the same thing about ageism.

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