World Health Day

Are you ready? What you need to know about ageing

Fighting stereotypes

We all generally value and respect the older people we love or know well. But our attitudes to other older people within the broader community can be different. In many traditional societies, older people are respected as "elders". However, in other societies, older women and men may be less respected. The marginalization can be structural, for example enforced retirement ages, or informal, such as older people being viewed as less energetic and less valuable to a potential employer. These attitudes are examples of "ageism" — the stereotyping of, and discrimination against, individuals or groups because of their age. Ageist attitudes can portray older people as frail, "past their sell-by date", unable to work, physically weak, mentally slow, disabled or helpless. Ageism serves as a social divider between young and old.

These stereotypes can prevent older men and women from fully participating in social, political, economic, cultural, spiritual, civic and other activities. Younger people may also influence these decisions in the attitudes they convey to older people, or even by building barriers to their participation.

We can escape this vicious cycle by breaking down stereotypes and change our attitudes about older people. Here are a few examples.

Stereotype 1: Older people are "past their sell-by date"

While older workers are often presumed to be less productive than younger workers and studies show slight declines in information processing and attention with age, most individuals maintain mental competence and learning abilities well into older age. They also have the advantage of possessing experience and institutional memory. Deterioration in physical abilities may be much less than presumed. On 16 October 2011, British national Fauja Singh became the first 100 year-old to complete a marathon by running the Toronto Waterfront Marathon in Canada.

Stereotype 2: Older people are helpless

The fact that older people are particularly vulnerable in emergencies does not mean that older people in general are helpless. After the 2007 Cyclone Sidr in Bangladesh, older people’s committees took an active role, disseminating early warning messages to people and families most at risk, identifying those who were worst hit, compiling beneficiary lists and notifying them when and where to receive relief goods. After the 2011 earthquake and Tsunami in Japan, older people and retirees came forward to volunteer at the nuclear disaster sites, saying they were not afraid of becoming contaminated with radiation. Advanced in years, they were less worried about the long term impacts of the exposure.

Stereotype 3: Older people will eventually become senile

Occasional memory lapses are common at any age. And although the risk of developing dementia symptoms rises steeply with age in people over 60, possible signs of dementia (a loss of intellectual abilities), such as uncertainty about how to perform simple tasks, difficulty in completing sentences and confusion about the month or season, are not normal signs of ageing. Most older people are able to manage their financial affairs and their day-to-day lives. They can give informed consent for treatment or medical interventions they may need. In fact, some types of our memory stay the same or even continue to improve with age, as for example our semantic memory, which is the ability to recall concepts and general facts that are not related to specific experiences.

Stereotype 4: Older women have less value than younger women

People often equate women’s worth with beauty, youth and the ability to have children. The role older women play in their families and communities, caring for their partners, parents, children and grandchildren is often overlooked. In most countries, women tend to be the family caregivers. Many take care of more than one generation. These women are often themselves at advanced ages. For example, in sub-Saharan Africa, 20% of rural women aged 60 and older are the main carers for their grandchildren.

Stereotype 5: Older people don't deserve health care

Treatable conditions and illnesses in older people are often overlooked or dismissed as being a "normal part of ageing". Age does not necessarily cause pain, and only extreme old age is associated with limitation of bodily function. The right to the best possible health does not diminish as we age: It is mainly society that sets age limits for access to complex treatments or proper rehabilitation and secondary prevention of disease and disability.

It is not age that limits the health and participation of older people. Rather, it is individual and societal misconceptions, discrimination and abuse that prevent active and dignified ageing.