recent report by the Sheridan Centre for Elder Research and Revera, a company specializing in care and service for seniors, found that ageism remains a pervasive problem in Canada. In fact, when asked to identify the most tolerated form of social prejudice in the country, an astonishing 42 percent selected ageism, which is more than double that of racism (20 percent) and sexism (17 percent). Furthermore, 25 percent of Canadians admitted to treating someone differently because of their age.

Yet, the fact is that many of us don’t even realize we’re exhibiting ageist, harmful behaviours. Sometimes, in an effort to help a senior, we make choices for them or assist them without asking. In reality, what we may be doing by our so-called helpful acts is actually robbing older adults of the fundamental things we all need for a full, active life: independence and choice.

Retiring our stereotypes about aging

Hazel McCallion, the 95-year-old former Mayor of Mississauga, Chief Elder Officer at Revera, and Chancellor of Sheridan College, understands all too well the negative effects of curbing a senior’s independence. “Society has created stereotypes and prejudices about older people — making assumptions about what seniors want and need, assuming they can’t think for themselves, or even feeling that they aren’t valued. There’s a big difference between offering support and jumping in when it’s not appreciated or needed. Stripping a person of their independence in the name of helping hurts far more than it helps.”
Thomas Wellner, President and CEO of Revera, also believes we need to change our approach to aging. “Today, our society tends to view aging as a slow period of decline. In reality, it is another stage of our lives that can be rich with learning, opportunity, and tremendous happiness.”

Unfortunately, many of us contribute unconsciously to the negative images and stereotypes surrounding aging through the way we speak and think. As Hazel says: “For individuals, we need to change our thinking, and change our language. We have to stop assuming we know what older people want and, quite simply, ask them. We also need to stop referring to aging in a negative way — like saying we’re having a ‘senior’s moment’ or we ‘can’t teach an old dog new tricks.’ It’s demeaning to hear those kinds of statements. Changing ageist behaviours doesn’t cost a dime, and the positive results are obvious.”

Fortunately, there are simple steps we can all take to help combat ageism. We can stop making assumptions about what older adults need and want. Seniors must also take responsibility for how they’re treated and not allow themselves to fall prey to antiquated notions of what elder adults can and cannot do. Policy-makers and organizations should ensure they’re considering the needs of older Canadians and help them safeguard their independence. Hazel sums up the solution best: “It’s time for us all to agree that ageism is getting old."