Today 16 percent of the population is 65 or older – around 3.8 million people and growing. Around half of children born today can expect to live into their 80s – up from around 50 years in 1900. Around 20 percent Australians (5.7 million) are expected to be 65 or older by 2030.

As more people reach older age, our attitudes, expectations, behaviours and policies about ageing come under more scrutiny. And there are problems that need to be addressed. 

Some are truly disgraceful as we have seen in aged care. People being tied up, drugged, underfed, abused, beaten, neglected, isolated, bored and lonely. Others are much more subtle – the discriminatory view we have of ageing in our a society.

This is ageism – when we discriminate negatively against people because of their age. Ageism against older people has several parts. 

Older people are incompetent, incapable and out of date

Discriminatory attitudes and beliefs about older people are everywhere. Older people are thought of as incompetent, incapable, out of date. 

Some discriminatory attitudes are well meaning – older people need care and protection and other people to make decisions for them .Think of this as ‘elderism’ or benevolent ageism.

Benevolence sounds ok, but the price you pay is that you have go along with the attitudes and beliefs that underpin it – that you get special treatment just because of your age. Think of the poor having to be grateful for charity. 

In reality, most older people are healthy, competent, and active and want to make decisions for themselves. This is true even when people develop illness and disabilities.

It’s ok to ignore older people’s decisions, preferences and opinions

Attitudes and beliefs lead to discriminatory behaviour. Older people’s decisions, preferences and opinions are ignored, ‘managed’, and discounted. People are infantilised and patronised (‘there, there dear’). 

Some actions are intended positively (standing up on public transport for someone with grey hair). Some are thoughtless (ignoring older people at the counter in shops). Some are abusive as we have seen in nursing homes, but that happens in families too. Elder abuse is a serious problem.

Aged based policy is just fine

More insidiously, ageism can be systemic. The rules we live by can discriminate against older people in employment, housing, social support systems and so on. Retirement is still encouraged and sometimes required (see high court judges) for older people. Loans and insurance are harder to get for older people. 

There are long waiting times and poor quality aged care services, often for older people with high levels of need. Older people are separated into villages, residential care facilities (nursing homes), day programs, and senior citizen’s programs. Older people are isolated from society rather than integrated.

Ageism also has an impact on older people themselves. People can internalise discriminatory attitudes and beliefs. The anti ageing industry of creams, lotions, potions, surgery, injections and pills wouldn’t survive if we all thought it was perfectly alright to look older. 

Needs not age

Of course it is true that ageing is associated with increased likelihood of illness, disability and ultimately death. But shouldn’t services, support and care be determined by need, not simply age? 

In some ways it might be better if we did away with the idea of aged care services and just had needs based housing, disability, health, income support and community services for all adults, regardless of age.