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Time to look at ageism: Why the little comments we make matter

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During my morning commute, I heard a news piece about the recent release of a United Nations report on Ageism.

As the traffic rolled along, cogs in my mind started to turn.

The news piece spoke of the prevalence of ageism, which the World Health Organization (WHO) defines as the stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination directed towards others or oneself based on age. It reported that “every second person in the world is believed to hold ageist attitudes.”

I thought about ageism towards older Australians. The final report on the Royal Commission into Aged Care was published less than a month ago, marking the end of a 2+ year process that uncovered awful, heartbreaking, and shocking stories of neglect and abuse.

The neglect and abuse revealed through the Commission didn’t occur in a vacuum; our society’s casual ageism has contributed to the fertile ground in which such atrocities could take place.

The discourse around unconscious bias and prejudice has come into focus of late in the context of gender and race. Many of us are doing work to become aware of our own biases and internalised prejudices, with the aim of learning, growing, and moving forward.

But as I drove along, I saw with a sad and shameful clarity that ageism has a similar hold on me. I have made casual ageist jokes or comments without realising that I was contributing to a general dehumanization of older Australians and making generalisations that dismissed diversity and individuality.

As a simple example from my own life, I have osteoarthritis in my lower back and once commented that I got up out of a chair ‘like an old person’. I cringe when I think about this comment because it is an example of ageism. It’s a generalised comment that diminishes. The fact is there are many people older than me that more nimble, graceful, and strong than I am. But this little throwaway line, and others like it, are small pieces of the puzzle that push older Australians to the margins.

Of course, when it comes to the matters exposed in the Commission there are many powerful factors at play and big bold action is needed. The comments above work at the other end of the spectrum. The little comments we make matter. Our words help shape the way we see the world.

We should expand our self-reflection to include being alert to moments of ageism, to recognise these moments in ourselves with compassion and try to learn and grow.

And do so remembering the words of Maya Angelou who said ‘Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better’.

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