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Aging was constant with every person. People experienced the joy and excitement of youth before they were doomed for the horrors of being frail and old. Or rather, the popular media wanted people to believe that about aging. Truthfully, such perceptions were mostly false, mere myths and stereotypes that were usually hurtful. While there were a few positive stereotypes that portray older adults as a wealth of wisdom and the leaders of society, more so were the negative stereotypes that were detrimental to society. Ageism was an illness that plagued many cultures. One in four Canadians aged 20-75 admitted to treating someone differently because they were older (Revera, 2016). The idea that older adults were useless and incompetent robbed a whole generation of people years off of their life. This essay will examine how popular culture portrays older adults in the media as well as the effects of the “useless and incompetent” stereotype in mental, physical, and social aspects. This essay will also explain why nurses have the duty to combat this stereotype and interventions to create a difference in healthcare settings.
Consumerism was obsessed with youth, even for older adults (Kleyman, 2017). Older adults consisted of the Third and Fourth age. The Third age was the era in a person’s life they were financially secure and in good health with little to no responsibilities. On the other hand, the Fourth Age was associated with deteriorating health and the inevitability of death. Ageism created a further division of the two ages in popular culture. The Third age was seen as merely an older youth, while the fourth age was further isolated for the loss of pleasure and autonomy. This led to pervasive stereotypes within the popular culture that painted older adults as superfluous and incompetent. For example, anti-aging culture was a market that feeds on the stereotype that older adults are useless and therefore undesirable. Success was tied to the image of a young, slim appearance (de Mendonça, 2016). Anti-aging affected more women compared to men, both because they are the target market, but also because women statistically live longer than men. The face of the old, wrinkled, woman often had negative connotations in the media causing people to internalize these harmful messages. This unattractive image of an aging body led to the isolation of older adults in society (de Mendonça). While there were depictions of older adults that show aging as a positive rather than a negative, the portrayal was unrealistic and unattainable, especially those from lower-income families. Nonetheless, the negative image of an older adult created an environment that fostered discrimination, creating lasting effects within older adults and all of society.
Negative perceptions of older adults were not just reinforced by youth, but also the older adults themselves. This internalized ageism was detrimental to the mental health of older adults. In Canada, 51% of older adults aged 77 years old and older believed that they cannot do activities by themselves. Additionally, one in four people of the same population reported that people made decisions for them without asking for their input due to their age (Revera, 2016). This feeling of hopelessness and uselessness created a higher risk for psychopathology such as depression in older adults. For instance, studies showed that depression in later ages was associated with the inability to carry out activities of daily living as well as negative self-critical perceptions (Han & Richardson, 2015). Their ability to make decisions being taken away from them may worsen mental health. Loss of control, lack of purpose, and hopelessness were all correlated with suicidal behaviour, usually seen in older adults who refuse care in favour of death to escape a meaningless life. Ageism also created worse outcomes for older adults in minority communities. For example, queer older adults already had a high rate of depression and suicide because of their gender and sexuality. However, ageism was still prevalent within the community. Programs within the LGBTQ communities were often targeted towards queer youth, leaving older adults with a lack of resources and poorer outcomes. Additionally, older adults within the queer community still suffered from the effects of ageism that the rest of the population experienced. The public also had the tendency to erase queer older adults and ignore their lived experiences, branding them as irrelevant. This isolation and erasure for being meaningless in youth culture created a population of older adults that were greatly at risk for mental health issues.
Aside from the effects of mental health, the stress of ageism also caused health effects correlated with chronic diseases. For example, stress from ageism could lead to fatal cardiovascular diseases such as heart disease and stroke. Furthermore, the learned-hopelessness due to ageism also created unhealthy behaviours in older adults. For example, after life-threatening events, such as an acute myocardial infarction, older adults with negative perceptions about age showed less improvement compared to older adults with positive views about age (Brenner, 2017). Nurses and other healthcare professionals also had a role in the detrimental physical effects of ageism. Older adults often had their concerns dismissed and received less routine screenings compared to younger people. Older adults also received less aggressive treatments compared to younger people which resulted in worse outcomes. Lastly, while older adults were one of the populations who needed more health incentives, program budgets were usually allocated to the younger population, leading older adults with fewer resources for better physical health.
Older adults suffered from stereotypes within the workforce and their home lives. Firstly, due to the useless and incompetent stereotype, older adults had a more difficult time finding employment compared to younger adults. Since the workforce was rapidly evolving technologically, employers tend to believe that older people were averse or incapable of learning new skills. Older adults were also seen as less productive and lacking stamina. For example, older adults who ran for public office were often questioned if they had the endurance to lead, despite their years of experience (Raynor, 2015). Older adults were also socially excluded in their home life, with many suffering from elder abuse. In the United States of America, one in ten older adults aged 60 and up were abused. Many were neglected, exploited, and physically harmed because of the perception that they are worthless and incompetent (Blancato & Ponder, 2015). This view of incompetence also extended to the healthcare setting in the form of elderspeak, a form of communication that infantilized and degraded older adults. The simplification of concepts, high pitched voice, and terms of endearment such as “honey” or “sweetie” were all aspects of elderspeak. While many professionals meant no ill will with the practice, elderspeak remained insulting and detrimental for the older adult’s self-image. Not only does elderspeak belittled the older adult’s intellect, thus purveying the ageist stereotype of incompetence, the practice also decreased the older adult’s self-esteem and sense of independence. Therefore, healthcare professionals put older adults at risk for mental health issues, such as depression and suicidal behaviours. Ageism created harmful social environments throughout society. Nurses should create programs and incentives to combat the effects of age discrimination.
While internalized ageism was seemingly one of the bigger causes of health problems with older adults, upstream solutions that combat ageism within healthcare and the society will create a better impact. Nurses have a duty to ensure the safety of the whole population, therefore nurses must advocate for the end to ageism. Nurses can start in the workplace by critically reflecting on their biases and analyzing how this changes their practice. Nurses should always provide culturally competent care, therefore their biases should not affect their treatment of older adults. Nurses should also teach nursing students about elderspeak and the harmful effects that come along with the practice before entering the healthcare setting. Nurses should also lead programs within the healthcare system to inform the interprofessional healthcare team about elderspeak. Programs with occupational therapists that trained people to talk to older adults with respect rather than with elderspeak created better outcomes for the patients, therefore similar programs can prove to be useful in the future. Nurses should also advocate against ageism in the media. Programs that raise awareness on the effects of anti-aging products on the mental perceptions have on aging could help the public understand that aging is not undesirable. Furthermore, public health nurses could create programs that challenge negative stereotypes of aging within the community. For example, programs that encourage healthy behaviours in older adults without the obsession of looking youthful may increase positive views of aging within the community. Additionally, nurses should advocate against institutionalized ageism by encouraging healthcare systems to allocate more money in preventative primary health care for older adults. This ensures better mental and physical outcomes for older adults. Lastly, nurses should advocate for inclusive workforces that both hire and retain older employees. This includes providing them with the same level of education and resources as the rest of the population.
Although the popular media forgot that older adults are people, nurses should not. Ageism is a pervasive aspect of many cultures that negatively affect older adults mentally, physically, and socially. Nurses have a duty to protect older adults and implement interventions against ageism. While ageism may be difficult to fully eradicate, nurses can help lessen the effects within the workplace and community. Nurses should reteach the world about the limitless capabilities of older adults and challenge those that continue to echo the false “useless and incompetent” image that the media wants the public to believe.
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