Ageism in Society According to the World Health Organisation

This essay will discuss the attitudes towards ageism in Ireland and whether they have changed over the past 20 years using sociological theories, primary data reports and journal articles. Ageism can be defined as “discrimination or unfair treatment based on a person’s age (ageuk, 2017)”. Ageism can be found everywhere in today’s society from the healthcare system, black balloons at birthday parties, ‘senior moments’ and anti-aging products such as creams and Botox. Ageism is going to become a very prominent topic over the coming decades as Irelands population ages. Currently in Ireland there are more young people (

Factors which can cause ageism include: “misconceptions, negative attitudes and assumptions about older people (Officer, et al., 2016)” these are all barriers to tackling ageism in society according to the World Health Organisation. Another journal suggests that “ageist attitudes block young adults’ ability for compassion (Bergman & Bodner, 2015)” this can be linked to (Butler and Lewis,1987) as cited in (McGlone & Fitzgerald, 2005) which states “ageism allows the younger generation to see older people as different from themselves” which reduces compassion and alleviates the fear of ageing. The fear of ageing can be easily seen in today’s society with a wide range of products available to treat wrinkles, age spots and sagging skin. People do all they can to maintain their youth even paying for expensive treatments like Botox and laser therapy. (Butler, 1969) believed that there were three components to ageism: cognitive, affective and behavioural. The cognitive component being our beliefs and stereotypes, the behavioural being our indirect and direct practices and the affective being our prejudice attitudes. Ageism takes its toll on the wellbeing of older people. It reduces their self-esteem, their willingness to participate in society and cause fatalism and low expectations (McGlone & Fitzgerald, 2005) (Butler, 1969).

Different sociological theoretical perspectives can be used to explain ageism. These perspectives are functionalism, conflict and symbolic. Functionalism, a macro theory, studies how the different parts of society work together to keep it running smoothly and what the outcomes of this are. The elderly are one part or group of this society just like children are another. The disengagement theory falls under the functionalistic approach. The disengagement approach was created by Cumming and Henry in 1961 (Cumming & Henry, 1961). It suggests that people withdraw from society and relationships as they age because of the natural decline in physical and cognitive health. This withdrawal causes unhappiness as the person becomes directionless unless other activities can be found to fill in for the lack of their previous role. The theory suggests that this disengagement needs to happen in order to preserve society’s stability by encouraging older people to ‘disengage’ to allow younger people to take on their roles. This can encourage ageism as the elderly are asked to move aside for the younger generation which leaves the elderly without a role. An example of this in Ireland would be the mandatory retirement age which does not take into account a person’s health, willingness to stay working etc. (Cumming & Henry, 1961)

The conflict theory is another sociological way of describing aging. The conflict theory is a macro theory and it can be traced to the works of Karl Marx. Marx believed that in a capitalist society the wealthy (the bourgeoisie) owned all the businesses which gave them power over the working class (the proletariat). This imbalance causes conflict. Conflict theories look at how resources are divided among society e.g. how wealth and power are divided among the people. For example, groups in society fight for resources such as property. A conflict theory which describes the process of ageing is the exchange theory created by (Dowd, 1975). This theory suggests that as we age, we have fewer resources so we have to submit to the will of others. This makes the elderly less powerful as they have less to offer due to physical decline. This means they have to submit to the will of the younger generation unless they can hold onto resources such as offering childcare to their children. The conflict theory can view the elderly as an economic burden on a capitalist society where the high costs of healthcare etc can drive down profits. (Dowd, 1975)

Finally, symbolic interactionalism can be used to describe ageism. Symbolic interactionalism is a micro-analytical theory which studies how interaction between individuals and people’s perceptions of themselves affect society. For example, someone whose interactions make them feel valuable and loved will have a stronger sense of self. One theory from this category is the subculture of aging theory (Rose, 1962). This theory suggests that the elderly are involuntarily/voluntarily excluded from groups due to their age, mobility etc and are forced to create groups of their own e.g. active retirement. On a positive note, this creates a strong sense of community in the newly created groups but on the other hand can cause disengagement and withdrawal from the rest of society. (Rose, 1962)

Active Retirement Ireland, Irelands largest older people organisation has found that Ireland has become less ageist (Active Retirement Ireland , 2018). They carried out research through the Active retirement groups which are located throughout the country and published a qualitative research report titled “ ‘Towards an Age-Friendly Ireland: Ageism and Older People in 2018 (Active Retirement Ireland , 2018)”. The research was carried out using interviews. The report found both negative and positive findings. One of the most negative findings was that “43 per cent had experience of being grouped as “older people, the elderly, seniors, or similar” in a negative fashion. (Active Retirement Ireland , 2018)”. This shows that becoming older in Ireland is still viewed in a negative light by many. Some of the more positive findings include “Only 22% of older people said they had experienced ageism in a healthcare environment [and] only 19 per cent of those surveyed indicated they have felt humiliated or hurt by comments about their age (Active Retirement Ireland , 2018)”. The most encouraging part of the report is that negative experiences reported by the elderly are down to 20 per cent compared to “36 per cent in 2008 (Active Retirement Ireland , 2018)”. Overall, this report suggests Ireland is going in the right direction in regards to ageism and that there has been some improvements in the last 20 years but other reports disagree with these findings.

Other reports suggest that Irelands ageist attitudes haven’t changed especially in the areas of employment and healthcare. One such report investigating ageism and employment found that “87% of those currently unemployed under the age of 55 or over believe their age has been a factor in their not getting work (William Fry , 2016)”. The report also shows technology poses a problem to older workers (71%) and that employers believe there is an age limit for customer facing roles (William Fry , 2016). This really highlights some of the ageist attitudes Ireland holds if an older worker can not work in a receptionist role etc. Another contentious issue related to ageism is the mandatory retirement age. Every year people are forced to leave their jobs when they turn sixty-five. No thought is given to their willingness to continue working, their health or their ability at their job. This is entirely discriminatory and is still extremely prevalent in Ireland today.

Another area where older people face discrimination and ageist attitudes is in the Irish healthcare system. Here, the elderly are often referred to as ‘bed blockers’. People fail to see that they are people too with equal rights to healthcare. A report carried out on behalf of The National Council of Ageing and Older People found that staff felt older people weren’t being referred to specialist services because of their age (McGlone & Fitzgerald, 2005). There was also evidence of preferential treatment towards people with an acute illness rather than a chronic one (chronic illness being more common in the elderly e.g. diabetes). The report also highlighted “lack of transport, waiting lists and prolonged waiting times (McGlone & Fitzgerald, 2005)” were all barriers faced by the elderly trying to access health services. If babies or young children were subjected to this kind of treatment by the healthcare system there would be public outrage which highlights the ageist attitudes of Ireland.

The final ageist aspect of Irish society the author wishes to discuss is the lack of adequate transport for older people and its role in causing loneliness. The loss of your driving licence can be very upsetting to an older person in a rural area as you then have to depend on friends and family to get from one place to another due to poor public transport provision in rural areas. If rural bus routes are available, they often only run once or twice a day. The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA) found that “ 58% of adults aged 50 and over living in rural areas rate the public transport services in their area as poor or very poor (TILDA, 2018)” with low frequency of routes, threats of closure and awkward times being the main concerns. “12-18% of [older people] indicate that reduced frequency of driving or no longer driving affects their ability to socialise (TILDA, 2018)” which highlights the issue of loneliness which often affects the elderly in Ireland. The report found that “more than 37% of people aged 50 and over reported feeling lonely often or some of the time (TILDA, 2018)” with the percentage increasing with age.

This essay highlights that Ireland still has a long way to go in terms of ageism. Many things have not changed in the last twenty years such as employment equality and healthcare. Lack of adequate public services such as transport and healthcare are also indicative of Irelands attitude toward providing for its elderly population. The author believes Ireland needs a strategy to tackle these views and to push for a more equal society with fair access to resources such as transport and employment. For example, in Canada one cannot be forced to retire based on age alone. A system such as this in Ireland would be highly beneficial as Irelands population ages. In conclusion, the author believes the attitudes towards ageism have not changed in Ireland in the last twenty years. Only one report suggested there had been some changes in the right direction but overall in terms of policy and provision of services, Ireland remains a largely ageist country. The people of Ireland need to wake up and realise that they too one day will grow old and question what treatment they expect to be given in their older years.