Whatever your age, now is a very good time to become aware of, and positively influence both your own attitudes towards ageing and those of others.

Ageist attitudes begin early and become entrenched

The extent to which we value and respect each other is a fundamental indicator of a successful society.  Treating people differently because of their individual characteristics is both unlawful and a breach of their rights to be respected as humans. Why then, as we become more successful at protecting such characteristics as gender, race, ability, relationships, religion and beliefs, do we struggle with ageing, that most fundamental characteristic of being human? 

A recent report highlighted that ageist attitudes can develop from as young as six years old. Constant reinforcement of learned prejudices throughout life leads us to concentrate on the deficits rather than the assets that older people bring to communities. Curiously we do this unconsciously, perhaps because ageing seems so ordinary that we don’t question the separation in attitudes which occurs between generations. 

 

Ageing seen as synonymous with decline, not opportunity

We have somehow allowed ourselves to become accustomed to accepting ageing as an inevitable process of decline at the very end of life, not one of opportunity for success throughout life.  For some, ageing is to be avoided not celebrated.

However most of us want to live a long life in good health and be treated well along the way. As the population expands and ages, tackling ageism is of importance to us all and we should challenge factors driving negative attitudes towards ageing. These include negative framing of ageing through advertising which has precipitated a misguided pursuit of ‘anti-ageing remedies’ creating pressure to stay visibly young (even at the expense of our own health and wellbeing). Other targets include arbitrary age-defined economic and workplace prejudices leading us to accept ageism unquestionably in both ourselves and others.

We all have a responsibility to root our ageism

We all have personal responsibility here. We grow older continuously and imperceptibly, but it’s important not to become exclusively focused on what affects us directly. Instead we also need to consider what is going on around us in our families and communities and concentrate on what lies ahead.  There is much we can do through rooting out ageism to improve both our own wellbeing and that of others.

From a health perspective, it is important to be aware that we do not all age in the same way.  For many of us, ageing well is directly within our own control. What happens earlier in life and the choices we make can significantly affect how we experience our own later life. This has real potential to improve life experiences for everyone. So whatever your age, now is a very good time to become aware of, and positively influence both your own attitudes towards ageing and those of others.

We must continuously challenge our own views and behaviour

To do this we must challenge ourselves to think and behave differently. If we don’t define ourselves in terms of our age, we should question those who characterise us purely by our changing appearance and capabilities. It is not ok to simply accept these experiences as a normal part of ageing. Instead we must embrace our ageing and that of our fellow citizens positively.

Challenging ageist attitudes is important because there is a growing body of research evidence pointing to the unwarranted consequences of allowing them to persist and equally of the benefits of retaining positive attitudes. Social exclusion, poor mental health and reduced prospects of employment are all outcomes we can influence for the better. Extended quality contact between generations has been shown to positively influence the attitudes of younger people towards older citizens. This can successfully reduce ageism particularly if the focus is on challenging negative stereotypes.

It is not how old you are, but how you are old that matters most.

Focus on the person, not their age

NHS England strongly supports taking a stand on ageism. We recognise that over 20% of people aged over 90 remain fit; while 1 in 25 of the younger population aged 65 to 69 have begun to exhibit greater vulnerability to unwarranted health outcomes. We know that identifying those people most at risk based purely on their age is neither effective nor timely.

Deploying new approaches based on intrinsic capacity linked to a person’s condition, we are taking positive steps towards caring for older people focused on their needs and preferences.

In 2017 the NHS in England became the first health system in the world to begin doing this systematically. Finding people who are at risk of unwarranted poor outcomes, and intervening ahead of the event is something we can all get around and locally work on together.

This is not just about meeting the health needs of older people now, important as that is. It is also about ensuring that people are personally invested in ageing well to protect themselves from the onset and effects of ill health in later life, whatever their age. In short, it is not how old you are, but how you are old that matters most.

Professor Martin J Vernon is the National Clinical Director for Older People and Person Centred Care for NHS England

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