Everyone gets older, but no one wants to be “old.” Despite extensive research showing most older adults grow happier as they age, with a steady increase starting at age 50 and continuing past age 90, many people still view aging as a bad thing. The reason for this? Ageism—the discrimination against people based on their age, and one of the most normalized forms of prejudice today.

Ageism Isn’t Always Easy to Identify

Ageism can take many forms and isn’t always as obvious as one might assume. And older adults aren’t the only ones who deal with it; whether it’s “entitled millennials,” or “selfish baby boomers,” almost every age group has their share of negative stereotypes.

What’s unique about ageism against older adults is that different age groups have different ideas of what’s “old.”  If you ask a 15-year-old and a 60-year-old what age they’d consider “old,” you’ll probably have two different answers to think about. But deciding who qualifies as old isn’t the issue here—the real problem is when a younger person, whatever their age, mistreats an older person simply because they’re older.

This Mistreatment Has Major Consequences

If you’ve ever been treated poorly for what seems like no reason, then you’re probably familiar with the negative side effects it can have. At the very least, it’s uncomfortable. But ageism is more than just being the butt of a bad joke from time to time. One common form of ageism is “elderspeak,” or talking to older adults as if they’re children.

Photo: A man smiling and reading while enjoying a cup of tea
Adults report feeling happier each decade after age 50, yet many people still have negative perceptions of aging. Thankfully, there are many ways older adults can challenge these stereotypes.

Many people don’t even realize the stereotypes they believe about older adults cause them to act demeaning, but by treating older people as frail, incompetent, confused or sick, seniors can lose motivation and self-respect.

Research has shown that being ignored and underestimated as a result of ageist attitudes can lead to higher rates of depression, mistreatment from healthcare professionals and shortened lifespans.

Older Adults Can Redefine Older Adulthood

Even if it feels like ageism is inescapable, seniors have a lot of power to change assumptions about what it means to grow old. While it isn’t the responsibility of older adults to tackle ageism, there are still many things you can do to challenge perceptions and reframe conversations about aging.

Here are three simple ways you can disrupt negative stereotypes about life as an older adult

  1. Socialize with people of all ages

    Most folks tend to surround themselves with others in their own age group, but expanding your network to include people much younger—or significantly older—than you is a good first step to breaking down barriers between generations.

    Attending community events, volunteering for local causes and visiting with grandchildren are just a few ways to strengthen intergenerational connections.

  2. Resist the urge to make age an embarrassing topic

    Referring to every lost train-of-thought as a “senior moment” isn’t doing anyone any favors. Today’s seniors can send the message that there’s nothing wrong with growing old by simply embracing elderhood.

    By planning for future care needs and actively communicating end-of-life wishes, seniors can unearth the idea that growing old means losing independence.

  3. Know when to draw the line

    There’s no reason to accept abuse as normal. Of course, taking the high road is the first choice, but that doesn’t mean you can’t speak up when peers, loved ones or total strangers are making assumptions about you or anyone else based on their age—young or old. It’s often easier said than done, but standing up to discrimination is dually effective by preventing future abuse and empowering those around you.

    By speaking out against someone who may be acting ageist, you can force them to rethink their actions and possibly even stop themselves from doing it again. Meanwhile, standing up for yourself or another person can be inspiring to those around you who don’t feel as confident to speak up when they’re being put down.