Ageism and Mental Health

Ageism research typically focuses on default elder stereotypes of perceived incompetence, illness, and irrelevance. Though useful, this approach ignores society’s ‘graying’ demographic trends, which are fast ushering in a more visible, healthy, and influential older age. Also overlooked are the potential (though not inevitable) intergenerational tensions that might result from an enlarged older population’s use of resources (North & Fiske, 2012).

Similarly, ageism measures tend to focus on descriptive content concerning what older people are allegedly like. By contrast, a prescriptive approach centers on expectations concerning what older people allegedly should do (North & Fiske, 2013a). This theory-based measure thus centers on the idea that age groups are interdependent, and emphasizes intergenerational tensions over practical and symbolic resources. In this vein, its perspective echoes classic social psychological theories of prejudice emphasizing intergroup resource competition

The goal of this commentary is to highlight the ageism that has emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic. Over 20 international researchers in the field of ageing have contributed to this document. This commentary discusses how older people are misrepresented and undervalued in the current public discourse surrounding the pandemic. It points to issues in documenting the deaths of older adults, the lack of preparation for such a crisis in long-term care homes, how some ‘protective’ policies can be considered patronising and how the initial perception of the public was that the virus was really an older adult problem. This commentary also calls attention to important intergenerational solidarity that has occurred during this crisis to ensure support and social-inclusion of older adults, even at a distance. Our hope is that with this commentary we can contribute to the discourse on older adults during this pandemic and diminish the ageist attitudes that have circulated does nair work

  • The public discourse during COVID-19 misrepresents and devalues older adults.
  • The ageist attitudes circulating during COVID-19 make some people think that the pandemic is an older person problem.
  • Intergenerational solidarity is important to maximise the support and connectedness of older adults during COVID-19.

Ageism is a reality in western societies and current views of older people are too often tinged with false beliefs and prejudices. Public authorities often consider older adults to be a burden rather than an integral segment of the population whose members must be supported. Older adults are rarely given a voice and are seldom considered when making decisions. The media has a considerable role in the propagation of ageist stereotypes and negative attitudes towards older adults, particularly in times of crisis when age is not a relevant factor. The COVID-19 pandemic has accentuated the exclusion of and prejudice against older adults. The current crisis highlights a disturbing public discourse about ageing that questions the value of older adults’ lives and disregards their valuable contributions to society

Public discourse and the undocumented deaths of older adults

One of the most blatant examples of disregard for the lives of older adults is the failure of the public authorities in France to report mortality figures for older adults in nursing homes. This could lead the public to conclude that their deaths were insignificant and to be expected . The pandemic was initially not taken seriously, in France, and elsewhere, where the public discourse presented it as only dangerous to older adults. It may have been the case that this narrative partially explained the resistance to following public health guidelines. Even after many weeks of COVID-19, governments are still begging citizens to stay home. In other words, is this pandemic reinforcing and highlighting the dormant ‘us’ versus ‘them’ phenomenon? It is also revealing that the younger adults who have died from complications of COVID-19 throughout the world have often generated long and in-depth media reports, while the deaths of thousands of older adults have been simply counted and summarised, if they were documented at all. This implies that the death of a young adult merits a life story, while the death of an older adult is too often merely a statistic.

The patronising face of ageism

In addition to the misrepresentation of COVID-19 as an ‘older adult problem’, many countries have chosen to impose stricter restrictions on older adults, ordering them to remain inside during the pandemic . These restrictions exacerbate the longstanding problem of older adults’ isolation and the health consequences of social disconnectedness that existed long before the pandemic . While restrictions may aim to be protective, such policies have often translated into patronising public communication depicting all older adults as ‘vulnerable’ members of society. In one Canadian city, people over 70 years of age have been encouraged to sign up for the ‘vulnerable person registry’. In another province, many healthy adults aged 70 years old and older have been the target of patronising attitudes when out for a walk, being told that they should not be outside.

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