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 II. Ageism: Concepts and Theories

II. Ageism: Concepts and Theories

Old age is not a status we choose to become; it is a status that we inherit simply by the virtue of living, not dying.
- Holstein, 2006, 317[46]
A. What is meant by ageism?

“You’re not important in society.”[47]

When Robert Butler coined the word “ageism”, he defined it as

“[a] process of systematic stereotyping or discrimination against people because they are old, just as racism and sexism accomplish with skin colour and gender. Ageism allows the younger generations to see older people as different than themselves; thus they subtly cease to identify with their elders as human beings.” (as cited in Butler, 1975) [48]

Butler saw ageism manifested in “a wide range of phenomena on both individual and institutional levels- stereotypes and myths, outright disdain and dislike, simple avoidance of contact, and discriminatory practices in housing, employment, and services of all kinds.” The strongest stereotypes around aging are those which equate aging with the “3 Ds”- disease, disability (in terms of actual functional impairment, or as perceived potential to lose abilities), and death. The Ontario Human Rights Commission has defined ageism to mean, in part,

“a tendency to structure society based on an assumption that everyone is young, thereby failing to respond appropriately to the real needs of older persons.”[49]

Ageism can function as stereotypes (general statements about a group which may or may not be based on fact, or generalizing from the group to the individual). However ageism also functions as older persons’ invisibility, marginalization, and social exclusion. This is because the “other age” (persons who are not old) are treated as the norm and the more valued group. To the extent to which older people do not fit the perceived social norm, they are treated as “less”, which may include less valued and less visible. They become relegated to a second class status; their needs and their lives are treated as if they do not matter as much.

Ageist ideas are often ingrained and systemic. Ageism can inhibit people’s objectivity and subsequently influence decisions at the micro (individual/ family), meso (organization/ community) or macro (government/societal) levels of human interaction, law, and policy development without people even realizing this is happening. As a society, we seldom think to question the basis for our attitudes and beliefs. People simply incorporate the societal “norms” and values into their own way of thinking about and behaving towards older adults.

Ageism can be manifested as many small behaviours and decisions that cumulatively have significant negative impact on the lives of older adults. If we look at “small decisions“ individually and in isolation, any one may not appear to have much consequence or effect, but together they undermine rights and dignity of older persons. Phelan (2008) notes “Ageist assumptions become so integrated into common discourse in diverse social contexts that they become tacitly acceptable and legitimize a particular version of social reality which objectifies older people as a homogenous group in subject positions which emphasize these stereotypical negative attributes.“[50]

Ageism is justly criticized as being exclusionary, anti-equality and anti-social justice. Among other things, ageism may be considered the lack of ability to have one’s interests represented or rights respected in society. Ageism is predicated on the belief that older adults do not and should not have equal rights and their interests “of course” should be subordinated to other persons and other interests.

B. What is the context of ageism?

At what points does ageism tend to occur? Do all persons experience ageism equally? Is there a conceptual difference between “ageism” and areas of law or policy that “simply” give greater attention to other exigencies?

While ageism is often characterized as only having to do with age or aging, a fuller understanding of the concept requires reflection on the multifaceted and diverse experiences of people before they reach (and in) later life. The concept of ageism must be able to reflect and integrate the fact there are differences in income, education, sexual orientation, gender, area of geographic residence, their family and marital status, immigration and citizenship status, race and ethnic origin, and mental, physical, or intellectual disabilities. It will be important to consider the cumulative effect of other “isms”, and the extent to which ageism may simply be later life sexism in disguise. There is likely not one ageism, but many diverse ageisms.

It has been suggested that ageism is somehow different (and implicitly not as bad) as other “isms”, because it is inherent to all persons (“we all grow old”). Because of this perceived “universal” nature, ageism is often taken for granted or not treated as seriously than sexism/heterosexism, able-bodiedism (ableism) or racism. The Ontario Human Rights Commission also points out that in law:

“Age cases tend to be treated differently than other discrimination cases, ... The most noticeable difference from a human rights perspective is the lack of a sense of moral opprobrium linked to age discrimination which in comparable circumstances would generate outrage if the ground of discrimination were, say, race, sex or disability.” [51]

Jean Carette, retired professor at L’Université de Québec à Montréal, and president d'ESPACES 50 + has eloquently described the way in which many prejudices and negative images cultivated about older adults go beyond just a fear associated with aging and decline. Instead they are an unrestrained search for scapegoats for collective social difficulties, with increasingly virulent attacks against the current and emerging older generations. As baby boomers become “grandpa boomers” they are assumed to “have all the privileges and to have monopolized the advantages of their generation, leaving a country strangled by the debt, collapsing under the load of elder and condemned to the decline.” This caricature sets up a dangerous war between the ages, supplied with ignorance and prejudices, allowing for lapses of memory of the true historical and social causes.[52]

C. Ageism and society

Ageism includes the wide range of stereotypes and a constellation of attitudes that prevent people from accurately assessing and responding to social problems and conditions of older adults. Like racism and sexism, it is a form of prejudice or prejudgment, and a form of oppression. It limits the lives of older people who are the object of this oppression; it also shapes perceptions of young and old. Both young and old can hold ageist attitudes. Ageism can contribute to apathy towards the ill treatment of older people and tolerance of activities which would be unacceptable for other age groups.[53] Ageism may be considered as a barrier to obtaining full social citizenship in Canada.

Ageism is based on primarily negative perceptions of older persons and what life can or should hold for people in the “third age” and “fourth age”. Ageism is also perpetuated by the ways in which our society communicates about older adults. Ageist language can homogenize through the use of terms like “the elderly” and “the aged” (both terms carrying connotations of mental and physical frailty). Language can paternalize through the use of terms like “our seniors”, or “your loved one”. Ageist language allows older people to be treated as property, possessions or objects, not as individuals.

There are two competing views of aging and as a result potential sources for ageism:

“The ancient Greeks had two views of aging- the “geronte”- the ridiculous old person with cognitive and other declines and the “presbyte”- the wise old person rich in experience and wisdom.” [54]

In his original characterization of ageism, Robert Butler spoke of ageism in the context of positive and negative attitudes. The former refers to positive stereotypes about older adults (e.g. as wise, always caring). However what happens when we view older people in this manner, and what happens to those who fall short of these perceived ideals?

In recent years the gerontological literature, the media, and social policy have been placing increasing emphasis on “successful aging”, exemplified by the 85 year old marathoner, and the ever busy (“Energizer Bunny”TM) senior.[55] The focus of successful aging is on activity, volunteerism and engagement. In part, the perspective helps to counter the negative attitudes about aging and older persons, but it still relies on a youth norm. Charpentier notes

“…while these approaches are certainly dynamic and inspirational, we feel that they risk becoming solidified into a new "hyperactive and socially useful" conception of aging, which risks maintaining the marginalization and personal liability of sick and dependent old people who "haven't succeeded in aging well.”[56]

There is an unstated social expectation and responsibility to live up to that ideal, with those who do not (or cannot) being blamed for their failure.

Ageism is also the perpetuation of the belief that individuals by themselves can achieve this “successful aging”, or that by individual effort and sufficient willpower they can undo all the social inequities that have led up to their later years or the inequities that arise in later life. Calasanti (2008) notes

“It [ageism] includes “age-blindness”—the belief that ‘age doesn't really matter, and we should ignore age.’ But age does matter: bodies do change, old age is a social location burdened with the stigma of marginal status, and accumulated experiences do make a difference. Why deny this?”[57]

1. Ageism, power and contribution

One of the emerging gerontological debates for ageism is the extent to which ageism is experienced by persons. Do (or will) all older adults experience ageism, and do they experience it evenly? There is some suggestion that those with greater economic power or within communities where they have greater social capital may experience less absolute ageism.[58] Nonetheless, all adults will experience some ageism to some degree as they move into later life and some groups of older persons may be particularly vulnerable to its manifestations.

The extent to which the older adult feels the impact of that different treatment can be buffered by his or her level of education and economic status. Some view this different and devalued treatment of older persons as very much tied to the fact that in an industrial society, people’s perceived personal value is tied to their economic contribution. Significant past and current contributions which older adults have made to family, community, and society through relationships, work, volunteering and in paying taxes are overlooked or discounted. In an exclusively economically focussed perspective, older adults become “disposable citizens”, having outlived their usefulness in adding to that economy.

2. Manifestations of ageism

Ageism can be manifested in many different forms. At a systemic level, laws and policies may be made without regard to the needs of older adults, or service cuts may have a disproportionate impact on older adults. Ageism may take the form of “granny bashing” in the popular press (blaming many of society’s current economic worries on older adults). It can be reflected in media where older adults are portrayed as uniformly poor (and consequently a perceived potential drain on society) or as a uniformly well off group who are unconcerned about the needs of others.[59]

Ageism may be more commonplace in economic and political literature where demographic shifts in the population are characterized as portending a future health crisis or “age wars” with young and old fighting over their share of social and health services. Ageism and age discrimination are based on social fears, and social response expresses those fears.

It has been suggested that there can be both internalized and externalized ageism. Internalized ageism refers to the extent to which older adults take on the social norms that devalue or marginalize older persons. They may do this at an individual level by acting in ways that reinforces the youth norm – battling the obvious and visible markers of aging such as grey hair or wrinkles.[60] Internalized ageism may also be manifested by denial of any commonality with others in a cohort, such as the familiar objection of an eighty-five year old woman or man who vehemently does not want to be associated with “all those old people”.

D. Age, ageism and law

There are many ways in which age is used in law, policy and practice. It may be used as a prerequisite for eligibility for some service, entitlement or benefit. The fact that a specific age is tied to an entitlement may or may not be ageist. In some cases, the age of entitlement may reflect a “general statement” of need or perception at points at which the group can handle responsibilities. [61]

The Ontario Human Rights Code (OHRC``) prohibits discrimination and harassment on the basis of age in all social areas covered by the Code.[62] At the same time, age protection can be effected by a special program, such as in section 14 of the OHRC, which expressly provides for preference of persons over 65 years of age in certain circumstances.

In addition, section 15 of the OHRC on “preferential treatment” states

“A right under Part I to non discrimination because of age is not infringed where an age of sixty five years or over is a requirement, qualification or consideration for preferential treatment.” [63]

This leaves government and other public and private bodies the ability to provide special housing for seniors, subsidies, rebates or other efforts intended to recognize the needs of many older adults.

Ageism within law, policy and practice by way of contrast, may be decisions or acts having a differential impact on seniors as a whole or a negative impact on specific populations of seniors. Ageism may reflect many different types of situations, including (a) distinctions between laws that benefit the young at the expense of the old; (b) laws that have a disproportionate impact on the old; (c) laws that remove certain entitlements from segments of the older adult population that are otherwise accorded to adults, as well as other emerging types. It may be useful to recognize and distinguish between ageism as acts or omissions directed at the old and ageism as actions that have a disproportionate negative impact on a group (who happen to be/the majority of whom are old). Ageism in this context may create an unfair burden on specific groups of older adults.

At a provincial, territorial or national level, ageist or discriminatory actions or decisions may largely go unrecognized, particularly when couched behind a façade of neutral explanations and justifications. Older adults and family members become very familiar with the refrain “it’s the policy”; “the government tells us to”; or “it was just part of the negotiations”. Policies, decisions and negotiations that fail to take into account the impact on older members of society may reflect systemic ageism.

Ageism and age discrimination are often harder to address than other forms of discrimination as older adults’ needs easily become subsumed to the needs of other age groups, or to the administrative needs for efficiency or cost cutting. Given pressure for scarce resources and given similar need, the fact that one is older often becomes the justification for not receiving a benefit or service or not be treated as a sufficiently high priority. In any cost-benefit analysis based on remaining years or future productivity, older adults are always at a disadvantage.

E. Ageism and the international stage

As a distinct group, older adults have not been well recognized at the international level until fairly recently. While the International Women’s Year was launched in 1975, and the International Year of Disabled Persons developed in 1981, it took another eighteen years until the International Year of Older Persons debuted in 1999. As a result, aging and ageism have largely remained peripheral to international discussions.

Over the past quarter century there have been some inroads. The Vienna International Plan of Action on Ageing (1982),[64] the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing, 2002,[65] and the United Nations Principles for Older Persons[66] have formed a nascent international framework on ageing. However, none of these provides any legally binding obligations. While the Plans incorporate norms and principles which governments agreed to be guided by, these documents do not require the member states to account for adherence.[67]

More recently aging has begun to gain attention in international human rights arenas.[68] In late Spring 2009, the United Nations Report of the Expert Working Group Meeting “Rights of Older Persons” provided an overall analysis of the existing documents and international legal instruments. They found several key provisions outlined in basic international documents were of particular relevance to older persons, for example, the references to non -discrimination and equality; equal rights of men and women; women’s right to social security; protection of the family as the basic unit of society; and the right of physical and mental health. The convention on the elimination of discrimination makes references to older persons in the context of right to social security.

At the same time, the Report pointed to significant “normative gaps” in international law when it came to aging and the needs of older adults. While several texts proscribe discrimination on the basis of gender, race, religion and other categories, in most cases age discrimination was captured only by the catch all phrase “or other status”.[69] Equally pressing, there were important implementation gaps, in that states often failed to abide by the obligations they had undertaken.[70] Mindfulness of these gaps and the disadvantaged position of older adults in many parts of the world has led to a United Nations’ call for a Special Rapporteur for older persons.[71] A Special Rapporteur bears a specific mandate from the UN Human Rights Council (or the former UN Commission on Human Rights, UNCHR), to investigate, monitor and recommend solutions to human rights problems.[72]

The Expert Working Group of the United Nations agreed on twenty-six specific recommendations to national governments to advance the wellbeing of older adults, several of which should be of interest to law reform bodies. Among other things, governments were encouraged:

· to close the gap between law and implementation of the law;

· to promote positive discrimination (affirmative action) of older persons as a legitimate step in national laws;

· to put the burden of proof of age discrimination on violator not victim of age discrimination;

· to provide easily accessible and free identity documentation to older men and women to access their economic, social, political and civil entitlements;

· to provide free paralegal support and free legal aid to older persons to defend their rights and help to resolve disputes within community structures and to gain them access to formal judicial systems;

· to provide legal support regarding cases of strategic litigation to create legal precedent and change laws, e.g. on discrimination in social security provision or inheritance and property rights;

· to incorporate a gender perspective in all policy actions on ageing and eliminate discrimination on the basis of age and gender;

· to provide affordable and appropriate health care, support and social protection for older persons including preventive and rehabilitation;

· to promote a set of measures aimed at the empowerment of older persons in various areas;

· to initiate a set of measures geared at preventing discrimination against older persons in all fields and areas, changing negative stereotypes in media and other fields;

· to promote evidence-based studies related to the empowerment of older persons, provision of health care and long-term care on a systematic basis;

· to give visibility to older persons’ rights among leading policy makers and educate them about the rights of older persons and the ageing process;

· to request scholars to include older persons’ concerns in their research;

· to encourage national activity on older persons’ rights in cooperation with the UN Regional Commissions;

· to encourage alternative means of conflict resolution to promote mediation in the home, family and society as early as possible;

· to support legal mechanisms in late life planning, health care, wills, and power of attorney, living wills, organ donations and property;

· to assure legal capacity in late life with due process;

· to ensure participation of older women and men in decision-making processes that affect them;

· to acknowledge basic rights, such as legal assistance, access to paid family leave, and programs, such as tax incentives for formal care and relieve for care-givers;

· to develop elder-specific professional-rules-of-ethics to ensure ethical and professional legal services for older clients;

· to revise existing legislation in accordance with internationally accepted norms (for example on social security, health, property and inheritance) to avoid discrimination on the basis of age and gender.


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