A recent report released by Revera and Sheridan Centre for Elder Research has concluded that "Ageism continues to be widespread in Canada, and tops the list as the most tolerated form of social prejudice by a wide margin when compared to gender or race-based discrimination" (Revera Report on Ageism: Independence and Choice as we Age, page 8). Perhaps the reason it is so widespread is because it was never identified as discrimination until recently. We all know about sexism and racism and know both have been rallied against for many, many years. But Ageism... much less so. With an aging population and the evident vibrancy of many 'new' seniors, this has now become something we are paying attention to and identifying.
25 years ago, it was not uncommon for people to be very paternalistic when it came to care decisions for their senior loved ones. I recall many occasions as a hospital social worker when children of seniors asked if they could apply for nursing homes without telling the person directly involved. Many families just didn't understand that if someone was competent, no matter how old they were, they had the right to make their own decisions even if others didn't agree. Those of us involved in discharge planning, breathed a sigh of relief when CCAC began managing long-term care and insisted that that senior involved be informed and signed the applications themselves.
The interesting thing about Ageism and perhaps what makes it so very pervasive, is that people who are ageist don't always realize what they are doing or saying is harmful. It is couched in a belief that one is providing 'care' or taking the burden of looking after everyday things away from someone. What many fail to recognize that in taking away someone else's ability to make decisions for themselves, you are negating their importance and value. Every human adult wants to feel independent and have dignity and control over their lives for as long as they are mentally able to. And while children may worry about their elder parents, assuming they need guidance, assistance and direction when they have not asked for it, is discriminatory and can cause far more harm than good.
Combating Ageism will take some time. Awareness is the first step. Change in attitudes and public policy will take some time. I suspect that with each passing year and in large part because of the 'silver tsunami' we will be forced us to look at our perceptions of aging, care and service provision for seniors. We are entering a time of great opportunity and innovation for both seniors and those who work with them. And our well-spoken and industrious baby boomers of today will likely lead the way by insisting that maintaining one's independence and quality of life well into our senior years is both a right and a necessity.
The Revera/Sheridan Centre report can be downloaded at www.ageismore.com