Fighting Ageism, Seniors’ Isolation Across Generations

Fighting Ageism, Seniors’ Isolation Across Generations

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Photo: The AARP Foundation’s MentorUp [] program involves youth with elders, such as by becoming a digital coach and help seniors stay connected. (AARP Foundation)

SANTE FE N.M.--Ageism, as defined in Merriam Webster’s dictionary, is “prejudice or discrimination against a particular age-group, especially the elderly.” “Elderly” is not a preferred descriptor of folks over about 55 or 60 – “older adults” is the preferred label. I learned that at one of the dozens of presentations on gerontology-related topics. The way we describe older adults –– shapes people’s perceptions.

“Ageism is a developmental process, and it’s part of many of the attitudes that we all develop from childhood to adulthood,” said Helen Kivnick, a clinical psychologist and professor of social work at the University of Minnesota.

“So that has to do with learning from both attitudes in the environment, and also personal experiences,” Kivnick said, adding “and media is a big part of the environment.”

Age Perceptions Can Change

Using words like “senior citizens” and “the elderly” in media reports is negative, according to the Frameworks Institute, one of the groups speaking at the November gerontology conference.

Kivnick described other ways our perceptions of older adults are formed: “The experience that kids have with older people –- and not only kids –- that adults and middle-aged people have with older people is, ‘They live their own independent life and we live ours, until they’re a mess. And I see them as only as a mess. So I spend my whole life thinking that old people are a mess; I’m gonna become a mess. Very rarely do I as a young person and a middle-aged person have relationships with older people where I see what’s wonderful about them, or I see them being somebody I want to be like.’”

But, Kivnick said, those perceptions can be changed. She and her colleagues studied the five dimensions of meaning of grandparenthood and found that children who had grandparents or who had friends with grandparents had a more positive perception of older adults and what being older could hold for them. Also, she said, it can change how they raise their own children.

“It’s a very different thing to say, ‘I’m raising my kid to be a good person throughout the whole life cycle.’ And that means there are different opportunities they’re going to have in old age or older adulthood than the ones they could have earlier and isn’t that cool?” Kivnick said.

She added, spending time with older people can help erase ageism.

Kivnick continued, “We have to look a little differently, but we don’t necessarily have to look too far to find people who can be role models; and hanging out with people who can be role models, especially around something we both care about, is a wonderful way to have a different attitude develop while you’re not thinking about it, i.e., where I’m singing together with you.”

Much of the world’s population is aging, and in eight years the number of people over 60 will double. In Japan more than a quarter are already over 65. In China, which for decades had a “one child” rule in place, more older adults are likely to live alone as they age, according to a 2011 study by Chow and Bai.

Here in the United States, the Census Bureau predicts that by 2030 there will be more older adults than children and teens, about 81 million. Given the ageism that persists, researchers say we can expect more people to be isolated in their later years, and that can lead to serious health problems like depression, and physical ailments, according to Lisa Marsh Ryerson, president of the AARP Foundation.

Students Teaching Seniors Tech

“In fact there’s one study that shows that being isolated or disconnected from your social networks is like smoking 15 cigarettes a day,” Marsh Ryerson said.

Over the past two decades, she noted, there’s been a 29 percent decrease of face-to-face connections for older adults. Actually, one in five adults 65 and older are socially isolated. To help mitigate that isolation, Marsh Ryerson pointed to an AARP program called Mentor Up, which pairs high school and college students with older adults through activities like using a smartphone.

Marsh Ryerson observed, “So having the teens and college students who understand technology teach the older adults how to remain connected with their networks –- family and friends –- through the phone, through applications through Facebook, is powerful. What we learned is that all of that human interaction, the reaching back and forth across the generations, becomes as important for the older adults, and is really powerful for the young people who are helping.”

Marsha Ryerson said the AARP Foundation is working through its MentorUp and the Connect2Affect programs to ensure than older adults, especially those living in poverty, have access to resources that help them live well. And, she says older adults are also reaching out.

“What is uplifting to me each and every day is the number of older adults who care deeply about helping older adults who are in difficulty,” she said. “Millions of individuals across this nation are incredibly compassionate and generous; they realize that they are not in a situation that they might be or could be and want to reach out to help; incredible generosity –- neighbors helping neighbors.”

Both Marsh Ryerson and Kivnick, the clinical psychologist, agree that while ageism and isolation are growing, so are the numbers of Americans coming up with solutions.

Deborah Martinez produced this story for KSFR public radio in Santa Fe, N.M., with support from a journalism fellowship from New America Media, the Gerentological Society of America and the Commonwealth Fund.