I’m not ageist, but…
That’s the train of thought an aged care provider wants Australians to consider this week.
In support of International Human Rights Day on Tuesday, Benetas chief executive Sandra Hills asked Australians to unpack their preconceptions of older generations and challenge stereotypes that fuel ageism.
And if a 2018 study by University of Melbourne researchers is to go by, that ‘but’ isn’t uncommon.
They found that while ageism exists in society, few Australians are resolutely ageist in their views. “They don’t have consistently negative attitudes about how older people are or how they should be,” said Dr Josh Healy and Dr Ruth Williams. Still, ageist thoughts sneak through and the researchers said that’s an urgent social and economic issue.
So while Australians might not be resolutely ageist, that doesn’t mean they’re free from ageist thoughts or attitudes – or critique should their choice of words come with an ageist undercurrent, as Treasurer Josh Frydenberg learned last month.
Frydenberg has came under fire from National Seniors for calling the ageing population an “economic time bomb”.
National Seniors chief advocate Ian Henschke said the Treasurer could be unintentionally engaging in ageism by implying the older generation was a burden.
He likened the treasurer’s ‘time bomb’ comments to warnings about an ageing ‘tsunami’, which were pervasive in the national discourse about ageing half a decade ago, and which advocates attempted to stamp out with some success.
In an interview with Aged Care Insite, University of South Australia linguist Jonathan Crichton issued a reminder that the language we use affects the way society treats certain people.
Crichton said language has failed to keep up with a society where ageing has changed.
“The role of people over a certain age is changing rapidly, so essentially, on about five or six fronts – social, economic, linguistic, health, longevity – we’re playing catch-up simultaneously,” he said.
“I think language is coming to light as being important in this because it’s important across all the other areas. You can’t articulate policy without language. You can’t create products and create markets without language. You can’t brand or provide care without language.”
In its April 2018 Bulletin, the World Health Organization said language and media, including films, television, music, and social media, most often echo and reinforce stereotypes about negative aspects of ageing because “ageist depictions tend to be the norm”.
In that issue, the group pushed for a global campaign to combat ageism and said collective, concerted and coordinated action by a diverse range of public and private sector actors was needed to see change.
One such actor working to unwind ageism in Australia is EveryAGE Counts, which started work late that same year.
The coalition, spearheaded by the Benevolent Society and made up of more than 20 high-profile organisations and individuals, kicked off their efforts with a quiz called ‘Are you ageist?’ and the release of a pledge to end ageism and discrimination.
And in August, Uniting Aged Care and the Benevolent Society created a photo exhibition featuring residents from Uniting’s Edina, Illowra and Ronald Coleman Lodge facilities. The pictures showed residents living well and detailed their thoughts on ageing.
The organisers asked attendees to take the pledge against ageism. One such signatory was local MP Dave Sharma. At the event, he said that ageism needed to be tackled urgently.
“I really do believe this is one of the next frontiers of civil rights in Australia,” he said.
But Henschke was not overly optimistic about that next frontier, at least not in the short term. When asked by Aged Care Insite how Australia can combat ageism, he said: “I am not sure that Australians are prepared to confront the fact that they are ageist because it is only when you reach a certain age that you realise that it is actually there and it is happening.
“It happens when people lose their jobs… and then you hear of people having to apply not dozens of times but hundreds of times. I spoke to a man who told me that he knows of someone who has applied for 300 jobs since they lost their job at 59.”
Workforce was one “obvious site in which intergenerational tensions play out”, according to the University of Melbourne researchers.
“The unprecedented presence of up to five different generations in the same workplaces creates massive positive potential, if managed well, but also risks considerable discord if we fail to recognise and put an end to age biases,” study leads Healy and Williams said.
“We need our workplace managers to first confront their own attitudes and check that these don’t reinforce ageist biases.”
Hills said Australia needs a strong national campaign to show the real face of older members of the community.
“If we’re really going to commit to tackling discrimination in Australia, we’re going to have to start valuing older people on an individual level and valuing their contributions to our community.
“It’s time that we work to shed existing perceptions and share the very real experiences of older people from diverse cultures and backgrounds, from various gender identities and sexual orientations. All of whom come with their own individual passions and expressions of service,” she said.
It’s a move backed by EveryAGE Counts co-chair Robert Tickner, who earlier this year called for a national agenda for older Australians.
“We would like to see governments at all levels help drive a public conversation about ageing and ageism including support for a broad, sustained public awareness and education campaign,” Tickner said.
Hill said Australia was on the brink of sweeping systematic change in how it cares for older Australians and added: “… with that comes an important opportunity, and in fact a responsibility, to tackle the ageism that older generations face.”
And, if Australians are going to deal with the problem, per Henschke, “you first have to recognise that you have got one”.Do you have an idea for a story?
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