Growing old is inevitable. Many people try to avoid it by fancy surgery, miracle youth pills, or the continual search for the fountain of youth. Unfortunately, in our youth-oriented society, growing old is a stigma. As a result, discriminatory attitudes and behaviors against older adults have evolved; the term ageism has come to define this behavior.


Ageism was coined in 1969 by Robert Butler, the First Director of the National Institute on Aging. According to the Journal of Gerontology, Mr. Butler “likened ageism to other forms of bigotry, such as racism and sexism, defining it as a process of systematic stereotyping and discrimination against people because they are old.” Today, however, it is more broadly defined as any prejudice or discrimination against or in favor of any age group.


There are several basic characteristics of stereotyping that help to form the basis of ageism. By understanding some of these characteristics, one can better understand how to counteract ageism. In his book entitled, Ageism, Erdman Palmore lists some of the basic characteristics. They are:

  1. The stereotype gives a highly exaggerated picture of the importance of a few characteristics.
  2. Some stereotypes are invented with no basis in fact, and are made to seem reasonable by association with other tendencies that have a kernel of truth.
  3. In a negative stereotype, favorable characteristics are either omitted entirely or insufficiently stressed.
  4. The stereotype fails to show how the majority share the same tendencies or have other desirable characteristics.
  5. Stereotypes leave little room for change; there is a lag in keeping up with the tendencies that actually typify many members of a group.
  6. Stereotypes leave little room for individual variation, which is particularly wide among elders.


Ageism is manifested in many ways. It can be as simple as an older person who has forgotten someone’s name and is charged with senility; or as complex as an older person who is charged with behaving like a child after society has ensured that they are dependent and helpless.


Ageism is also perpetuated in many ways. The lack of positive images of the elderly in advertisements and television programs is one of the ways. Additionally, institutions and businesses often reinforce ageist stereotypes by not hiring or promoting older workers. Although it is illegal, many business institutions fire workers because they are growing old. There are several underlying attitudes and myths dealing with issues of illness, impotency, ugliness, mental decline, mental illness, uselessness, isolation and poverty in relation to aging. These myths are deeply entrenched in American society and help to perpetuate the bias and prejudice.


The consequences of ageism are similar to those associated with all attempts to discriminate against other groups. Ageism can be counteracted by identifying personal attitudes that are ageist in nature. These personal attitudes can be identified through various aging quizzes and exercises and through formal instruction and education. An even better approach to combating this stereotype is to come into personal contact with older adults. This method is especially successful among young children. Intergenerational programs have proven to be an effective way to prevent the development of ageism. Lastly, social action and reform have also proven successful in counteracting ageism. These are particularly effective when directed at institutions.


 Treating an elderly person with respect and kindness is not a privilege; it is a duty. After all, it is important to remember that we are all aging.