Robert Butler (1975) was one of the first writers on ageism and he defined it as “a process of systematic stereotyping of and discrimination against people because they are old. . . . Old people are categorized as senile, rigid in thought and manner, old fashioned in morality and skills” (p. 35). Ageism is a form of oppression of elders by youth and adults. Ageism intersects with classism and sexism to produce differences in distribution of retirement resources for the elderly. Women of all ethnic groups live longer than men and general have fewer economic or health-care resources than men in their old age. Women, poor and working-class, and people of color often make fewer contributions to Social Security so they have fewer benefits. Middle and upper –class elders are more likely to have pensions or 401K plans to use for retirements. Ageism intersects with heterosexism in that same-sex partners cannot collect survivor benefits that are restricted to “spouses.” Just as racism and sexism are based on ethnicity and gender, ageism is a form of systematic stereotyping and discrimination against people primarily because they are old. It takes shape in stereotypes and myths, subtle avoidance, and in discriminatory practices in employment, housing, health care, and other services the elderly need.
The fact remains that the elderly are invisible to society. They often feel ignored and are not taken seriously. Their invisibility extends even to emergencies, such as in the World Trade Center when many elderly was abandoned in their apartments for up to seven days before medical teams arrived to rescue them. Another case of their invisibility is Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Ageism is perpetuated in film and television in that less than two percent of prime-time television characters are aged 65 or older, even though this group represents about 13% of the entire population. The phenomenon of ageism is real and needs attention. Yale psychologist Becca Levy reports that constant bombardment of negative stereotypes increases blood pressure, thus ageism can make an older person sick.
Stereotyping of elderly has resulted in inappropriate attitudes toward older persons and has conditioned people to think and act in terms of prejudice. The elderly may feel inadequate and helpless. Some even give up on life because they feel excluded. They often forget they are intelligent, fun-loving, creative, powerful, and even sexy human beings. Their age should not define who they are. With the increasing numbers of elderly, this group is the most powerful force in the entire population so they must take control of their lives.
Old age was at one time was considered assets because of the experience and wisdom that usually accompanied age. The oppression of ageism intersects with, and actually intensifies, other oppressions such as classism, racism, and homophobia. We must begin to remove the...