Senior Israelis play table tennis as they take part in games for people over 65 years old, organized by a nursing home in Tel Aviv.
(photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
Academics from Belgium, the Czech Republic, United Kingdom, Poland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, Austria, Switzerland and Ireland will converge on Ramat Gan on Thursday as Bar-Ilan University hosts a conference seeking solutions to the problems of ageism in society.
“Aging has become one of the greatest promises of society,” Professor Liat Ayalon of Bar-Ilan’s Louis and Gabi Weisfeld School of Social Work said in a statement ahead of the conference.
“For the first time in history, older adults have outnumbered children worldwide. Moreover, most people are expected to live into their sixties and beyond. It is, therefore, our duty to ensure a world for all ages, where age is not a barrier. We will aim to change the way we think, feel and act towards age and aging.”
Bar-Ilan has been appointed to lead a new, European Commission-funded international consortium of researchers, policy makers and social and health care professionals that has been established to address ageism.
It will host the EU Consortium Addressing the prevalence of ageism in Europe on Thursday.
Ayalon spoke with The Jerusalem Post about the past, present and future of ageism, a term coined in 1969 by Robert Butler, a gerontologist from the United States, that was used to describe discrimination toward older adults.
The World Health Organization defines ageism as prejudice, discrimination and stereotypes toward age and aging. According to WHO, it is highly prevalent worldwide and remains unchanged in society largely because it is socially accepted and entrenched in institutions.
“Gathering information is easy today, but the big thing is changing our attitude,” Ayalon told the Post.
Of what she calls the three “isms” – racism, sexism and ageism – Ayalon said ageism is the most reported.
“More people are reporting ageism over racism and sexism [but] more younger people [an age range difficult to pinpoint but those younger than 40 fall under this category] reported ageism than actual old people [generally those over 60] because the older people just accept it and internalize it that they are just old,” she said.
Nevertheless, she said there has been more evidence from research that shows ageism towards older people is damaging to older individuals, while there has not been as much research on younger people.
An expert in her field, Ayalon has studied gerontology for decades, though her interest in ageism has been gradual.
“I’ve been working with older adults for a while. For example, in my classes, I used to devote around five minutes a semester to talking about ageism and now the whole class revolves around ageism,” she said.
At Thursday’s gathering, the group hopes to find new ways to combat the problem.
“After 40, people have a hard time finding jobs and being promoted and we all internalize ageism and people see their aging in a negative way. And if people have negative expectations towards aging, their life expectancy shortens by seven years.”
She continued: “We want to make sure we have an increase in not just life expectancy, but healthy life expectancy. So the alternative is much worse [a decrease in life expectancy] and we have to try to make sure they are in good health because the ageist messages they are receiving negatively impacts their morbidity and their mortality,” she said.
On a more mundane level, Ayalon points out other forms of ageism such as in the healthcare system where many of the clinical trials and drugs intended for older individuals are tested on younger people, so a lot of knowledge gained is not necessarily relevant to those who will actually use the drugs.
Ayalon is a member of the WHO core group to combat ageism, and chairs the COST Action on ageism, which leads 200 people from 35 countries from multidisciplinary backgrounds who are looking at ageism from different perspectives including engineering, medicine and a variety of social sciences.