Ageism hurts all of us in one way or another, no matter how old we are.
Sometimes we’re aware of it, when it happens at work or in personal relationships. Likely many of us have no idea that age discrimination drives up health care costs and stunts economic growth.
“Ageism is bad for business,” said Tracey Gendron, Ph.D., a gerontologist and author of “Ageism Unmasked,” a book about age bias and how to end it.
To disrupt ageism, Mainers of all ages must change the way we think, act and talk about getting older.
That was the message delivered Wednesday at the ninth annual Maine Wisdom Summit. It’s also why the Maine Council on Aging has set a goal to end ageism by 2032.
The daylong summit addressed age as a critical aspect of identity, along with a person’s ethnicity, gender, race, sexuality, education, culture and career. Yet discrimination based on age increases health care costs by $63 billion annually, a Yale University study found. Ageism also reduced the U.S. gross domestic product by $850 billion in 2018, AARP found.
“Ageism is holding us back,” Jess Maurer, the Maine Council on Aging executive director, told more than 300 participants in Wednesday’s virtual gathering. Summits were held at the Augusta Civic Center before the pandemic and will be held in person again next year, Maurer said.
Founded 10 years ago, the council’s membership includes more than 135 companies, municipalities and organizations across the state. The summit held the next year was one of the first efforts in the U.S. to examine the mounting challenges facing a rapidly aging population. It also sought to identify potential solutions for Maine, including more affordable housing, improved health care and additional long-term care and home care options.
Maurer said the council is committed to building an age-positive movement that will result in a healthier population, workforce and culture.
“Ageism is embedded and invisible in our culture,” said Gendron, the gerontologist who gave the keynote address for the summit’s morning session.
“We are all aging, so we need to break down the barriers of aging being about other people,” Gendron said. “Aging is not just about loss. It’s also about growth.”
Ageism impacts people of all ages, she said, and it’s reflected in labels and stereotypes applied to different age groups, whether it’s that millennials are lazy or boomers are out of touch.
Negative attitudes about getting older also dominate across the globe, where consumers spent $42 billion on anti-aging products in 2020, according to Brandessence Market Research.
She highlighted connections between ageism and ableism – discrimination based on ability. Experts in the field say most buildings and public facilities are built to be accessible for able-bodied men and others are expected to fit or adjust to that mold.
“Our society is built on ageist/ableist foundations,” Gendron said, pointing out that a person using a walker and a parent pushing a stroller face similar challenges getting around.
Ageism is bad for business and bad for your health, she said. One study found that negative attitudes toward aging account for a seven-year reduction in longevity.
Changing attitudes starts with changing the way we talk about older people, said Don Harden, manager of the council’s Power in Aging Project. Not using loaded labels such as “elderly,” for instance, and not calling the growing number of people over age 60 a “crisis.”
Calling an older person “sweetie” instead of their name can be demeaning and demoralizing. Even the term “seniors,” considered an improvement a few decades ago, offends some older people today.
“It’s (about) being aware and awake and responsive to the evolution of terminology,” Harden said during a pre-summit webinar. “It’s important for people to be called what they want to be called. Just call me by my name and I’ll be happy.”
Last fall, the council launched its Leadership Exchange on Ageism, a peer-training program to help business and community leaders weed out ageism wherever they find it. The first program of its kind in the nation, it’s funded by the Maine Community Foundation ($30,000) and the Maine Health Access Foundation ($15,000).
Sixty people have participated so far, and the NextFifty Initiative of Colorado has given the council a $25,000 grant to host 40 additional participants, evaluate the program’s effectiveness and replicate it in other states. Gabe Martinez, regional engagement director for UnitedHealthcare Medicare Advantage, was one of the participants.
“It was an eye-opening experience,” Martinez said. “It really was a journey to understand what older adults are experiencing and what some of our members need. I’m encouraging my colleagues to do it.”
At the council’s awards dinner Tuesday night, keynote speaker Ramsey Alwin, head of the National Council on Aging, said ending ageism is a social justice issue, and that racism and sexism compound the challenges of aging in America.
Many women, especially women of color, struggle to make ends meet with monthly Social Security benefits that fall about $1,000 short of actual expenses because their lifetime earning power is less than men’s and cost of living adjustments have failed to keep up, Alwin said.
Leslie Hill, Ph.D., professor emerita of politics at Bates College, spoke Wednesday afternoon on the connections between gender, race and ageism, noting that half of older women in Maine have difficulty covering basic needs such as food, housing and health care.
Sara Squires, public policy director at Disability Rights Maine, said housing and other buildings should be designed so they are accessible to all people, rather than segregate people with disabilities in separate housing developments.
Several participants highlighted the importance of increasing communication among people from different backgrounds as a way to increase understanding of others.
“It’s important to get people talking to each other,” said Ruby Parker, a community member on a panel discussing ageism and LGBTQ+ issues.
Amy Tomah, elder services coordinator with Wabanaki Public Health and Wellness, explained that Maine’s native peoples are taught to respect their elders as the keepers of tribal history and language.
“It’s up to us, the younger generation, to help carry that on,” said Newell Lewey, culture and education manager with Wabanaki Public Health.
Gendron, the author who spoke Wednesday morning, said she believes Maine can eradicate ageism given the success that the council has had in addressing aging issues over the last decade.
“If anyone can do it in the next 10 years, I think Maine can,” she said.
The council gave out several annual awards Tuesday night, including Lasting Legacy Awards to Jo Cooper, who has worked to provide transportation for older Mainers since 2003; and Susan Lavigne, who has worked with senior volunteers for 35 years.
Maine Senate President Troy Jackson received the Legislator of the Year Award, recognizing his consistent support for older Mainers, including increased funding for direct care workers, affordable housing and Meals on Wheels.
The Trailblazing Advocate Award went to Patricia Kimball, who has pioneered innovative responses to elder abuse and ageism; and L.L.Bean received the Business Excellence Award for consistently embracing the value of older workers and taking an active role in ending ageism in the workplace.
Family members received the first Douglas O. Wilson Rising Tide Leadership Award, named for an avid community leader and volunteer who died suddenly in August.