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Ageism Awareness

     In the play As You Like It the character Jacques illustrates his declaration the “all the world’s a stage” by describing the different roles we play as we pass through life. The "last scene of all, that ends this strange eventful history, second childishness and mere oblivion; Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything."  Shakespeare was not the only person to make such an observation – it is common for people to compare elderly people to children. However, I recently read a very interesting article from Psychology Today which takes this idea to task. The author, Susan Krauss Whitbourne, declares that Shakespeare’s conclusion is, ". . . the personification of 'ageism,' defined by the American Psychological Association as 'prejudice toward, stereotyping of, and/or discrimination against any person or persons directly and solely as a function of their having attained a chronological age which the social group defines as 'old'.'"


     What I find most interesting in the article is the statement, “Referring to older adults in these infantilizing terms is not only demeaning, but it can actually impair their cognitive performance.” I’m sure we’ve all seen, or been guilty of talking down to an elderly person as if they were a child. It is easy to equate physical infirmity with mental infirmity. As a result we may subconsciously treat those who are physically frail as if they don’t have the mental capacity of an adult. We may even feel like we need to make decisions for an elderly person who doesn’t have the ability to make their own decisions. However when we treat elderly people like children we unintentionally disrespect them and they can “literally became the children [we] imagined them to be.”


     Certainly an adult can physically lose the ability to independently perform certain functions, but this does not make them children. With dementia an adult can lose the cognitive skills to make major decisions, or even perform basic tasks. However as we work or live with elderly people we must strive to allow them as much independence as possible, encouraging self-reliance. We must be aware of our culture’s tendency to infantilize the elderly, and instead consciously strive to resist the inherent ageism. By treating elderly people as the adults they are we will help them maintain their physical and cognitive health.


     Those who sell goods and services must be especially careful not to take advantage of the elderly people they serve. One way this is done is by never assuming we know what’s best for them thus justifying manipulation as good customer care. Healthcare workers may feel they know what’s best, they may know more about a particular health issue, but they do not have the right to make decisions for their patients as if they are children.


Read the Psychology Today  article:

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