At an early stage in this project, the LCO determined that its approach to the law as it affects older adults would be rooted in a set of principles, building on the foundations created by the International Principles for Older Persons (IPOP) and the National Framework on Aging (NFA). Although there are challenges in defining and grounding principles, a principles-based approach can provide a set of norms against which to evaluate existing or potential laws policies and programs.
Based on the results of its consultations, the LCO decided that the principles should have their roots in an anti-ageist approach to the law and aim to advance substantive equality. That is, the norms which are identified through the principles should proactively address negative attitudes and approaches (at the level of both individuals and systems) to older adults as they are manifested in the law. Through research and consultations, the LCO has identified six guiding principles for the law as it affects older adults.
In keeping with this approach, this chapter of the Report outlines some key features of ageism, and the values on which to base a framework for the law that is centred on substantive equality. The second part of this Chapter builds on this foundation to analyze and define principles for the law as it affects older adults, and to briefly consider some implications for their application.
A. Understanding Ageism
Any systemic framework for the law as it affects older adults must incorporate an understanding of the barriers that older adults face, both in the law and in society at large, and must develop an approach that addresses those barriers and that is based on a positive understanding of and respect for older adults.
The concept of ageism provides a starting point for understanding how older persons may be marginalized, excluded or disadvantaged in the development or application of the law.
1. The Concept of Ageism
The concept of ageism developed relatively recently. Robert Butler, an American, pioneered an influential approach to the issue in the late 1960s. He defined ageism 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 generation to see older persons as different than themselves; thus they subtly cease to identify with their elders as human beings.
Butler pointed out that ageism manifests in a variety of forms, including stereotyping, negative attitudes, discriminatory behaviours, avoidance and social exclusion. Ageism may derive from ignorance – the lack of contact between younger and older persons – or from a profound fear of aging and death. It may also serve a rational purpose, in justifying preferential treatment of younger persons and excluding older persons from a share of societal resources.
Ageism may also manifest as systemic disadvantage and exclusion of older persons in societal institutions. The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) has defined ageism as “a socially constructed way of thinking about older persons based on negative stereotypes about aging as well as a tendency to structure society as though everyone is young.”
For the purposes of this Project, ageism may be defined as a belief system, analogous to racism, sexism or ableism, that attributes specific qualities and abilities to persons on the basis of their age. Ageism may manifest with respect to older adults in attitudes that see them as less worthy of respect and consideration, less able to contribute and participate in society, and of less inherent value than others. Ageism may be conscious or unconscious, and may be embedded in institutions, systems or the broader culture of a society.
There have been considerable efforts, both in Canada and internationally, to identify and address ageism and age discrimination. The United Nations declared 1999 the International Year of Older Persons, and there are now a plethora of international documents focused on inculcating respect for and addressing the needs of older persons. Advocacy organizations like CARP vigorously represent the views and needs of their constituencies, while Ontario’s Advocacy Centre for the Elderly (ACE) has been a major force in promoting law reform relating to older persons. In 2000, the OHRC undertook a high-profile endeavour to raise respect and awareness about the human rights of older persons and to advocate for reforms in law and policy. The Senate Special Committee on Aging has recently completed a multi-year project on older persons in Canada. Change is underway, and attitudes towards older persons continue to evolve.
However, ageism and age discrimination are still frequently treated less seriously than other forms of prejudice and discrimination. It has been noted that
[i]t is the case … that age discrimination tends not to attract the moral outrage as do many other forms of discrimination. This may reflect in part the fact that we all can expect to be older, but we will not all be members of the other groups involving prohibited grounds for discrimination. Furthermore, age discrimination is often justified in the minds of some in that it involves more opportunities for others, such as jobs and promotion opportunities if, for example, mandatory retirement prevails.
The OHRC has stated that it “is very concerned that ageism and age discrimination do not appear to invoke the same sense of moral outrage and condemnation as other forms of unequal treatment.”
Ageism has its basis in a set of pervasive stereotypes and negative attitudes towards older persons.
2. Stereotypes and Negative Attitudes Regarding Aging and Older Adults
Negative attitudes towards aging and older persons are not inevitable. Some societies value their elders highly as sources of wisdom, knowledge and experience. The Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing (MIPAA) points out, “[r]ecognition of the authority, wisdom, dignity and restraint that comes with a lifetime of experience has been a normal feature of the respect accorded to the old throughout history.”
However, many have pointed to the lack of positive images of aging in our own society. The Special Senate Committee on Aging stated that
[i]t is difficult to talk about aging in a positive way in a society which fights aging so vigorously. We are assailed with advertising which promises eternal youth. Changing this view will take a concerted effort.
The MIPAA, the OHRC and the Special Senate Committee on Aging have all recommended government initiatives to promote positive images of aging.
Some have identified the roots of negative attitudes and stereotypes in the significant age segmentation of our society, in which young, middle-aged and older persons occupy separate social and functional spheres. Associated with this is age segregation, where older persons are separated from the mainstream institutionally, culturally and spatially. Some academics have described old age as “a separate country”. The result is an “us and them” separation between older and younger persons.
[A] key weapon against stereotypes and prejudices is intergroup contact, which allows individuals the opportunity to challenge homogenized categories and see beyond stigmatized characteristics to other relevant qualities of persons in a pivotal category. In our view, arenas that facilitate ongoing interaction, familiarity and personal knowledge across age categories are hard to come by. Institutional arrangements that segregate older and younger persons from each other, and from other age groups, restrict opportunities for individuals to form stable cross-age relationships.
Others have pointed to the development of what some have termed a “youth cult” that associates youth with the future and new technology. The Special Senate Committee on Aging noted in its Final Report that ours is a youth oriented society. Growing older is viewed as “something to be denied, avoided at all costs, and kept hidden”.
As well, there are commonly negative, even catastrophic, perceptions of the demographic reality of an aging society. An apocalyptic view of demographic trends and an assumption of intergenerational conflict for scarce resources is a common theme in media, fuelling fears about the sustainability of public programs such as medicare and the Canada Pension Plan (CPP). Older persons are viewed as burdens, not only on individual family members, but on society as whole. They therefore become targets for resentment. The MIPAA notes that “older persons are disproportionately portrayed as a drain on the economy, with their escalating need for health and support services.” ACE notes that stereotypes about older adults as sickly, and the belief that this group is responsible for increases in health care costs, may support policies to reduce social programs for care, and may send the message that older adults are not entitled to services.
Older persons may internalize negative images of aging, which may lead to self-imposed limits on their activities. They may give up their independence or refrain from participating in society in conformance to expectations about what is “appropriate” for persons their age. The Expert Panel on Older Workers noted that one of the barriers that older workers may experience in seeking re-employment is lack of self-esteem or self confidence: older workers may perceive that employers will not see value in them, saying, “who would want to hire me? I’m too old”. Internalized ageism may result in older adults accepting the negative valuation placed on older persons, and rejecting any association with “old people”.
There is a constellation of commonly found stereotypes and negative attitudes regarding older persons. The most commonly expressed are the following:
Older adults are homogeneous and age is the defining characteristic of older adults.
Old age is a time of looking backwards, and older adults are resistant to change and unwilling to learn new things.
Old age is a time of inevitable decline, and older adults are mentally or physically frail and incapable.
Older adults have nothing further to contribute, and are simply waiting for death.
Older adults are burdens, dependent on others and passive recipients of services.
While these are stated in very strong forms, they exist, of course, in various shades and degrees, and may co-exist with other, more positive images and attitudes towards older persons. It is also important to keep in mind that all older adults will not be subject to ageist attitudes and stereotypes to the same degree, so that those with greater economic power, or who live within communities where they have greater social capital ma