In the 1960s, Robert Butler coined the phrase ageism, which he defined as:

A process of systematic stereotyping of and discrimination against people because they are old, just as racism and sexism accomplish this with skin color and gender. Old people are categorized as senile, rigid in thought and manner, old-fashioned in morality and skills. . . . Ageism allows the younger generations to see older people as different from themselves; thus they subtly cease to identify with their elders as human beings.

—R. Butler, Why Survive? Being Old in America, 1975

While some advocates for elders suggest that ageism is a cause of elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation, we do not have enough valid research into the attitudes of known perpetrators of elder mistreatment to be able to definitively make that statement. However, as the following references indicate, ageism contributes to conditions that disadvantage and marginalize older individuals in society.

Inequitable treatment occurring in the workplace, in the health care sector, and in the legal arena appears to be based, at least in part, on age discrimination. Even efforts to offer protection may be based upon compassionate ageism that may lead to disempowerment. Ageist beliefs and policies categorize seniors as a homogenous group, ignoring diversity issues and individual needs. Furthermore, it appears that aging individuals are not only subjected to ageist beliefs by others; they internalize these beliefs as well. Age discrimination can impact elders in tangible ways by contributing to reduced financial security and poorer health outcomes, but also appears to a have subtler, though perhaps more pervasive impact, by contributing to social isolation (a risk factor for mistreatment), lower self-esteem and poorer quality of life. When combined with other prejudices, such as sexism, racism and biases against the disabled (known as “ableism”), the health and well-being of elders is further jeopardized.

Learning Activity

Take the Implicit Association Test (IAT) on aging and reflect on your results then ask someone else to take the IAT and interview that person about the results.

  • How might the results may impact your attitudes?

Consequences of Attributing Illness to Old Age

Stereotypic beliefs about older adults and the aging process have led to endorsement of the myth that “to be old is to be ill.” A study on older adults’ beliefs about the causes of their chronic illness (i.e., heart disease, cancer, diabetes, etc.), found that attributing an illness to “old age” is associated with negative health outcomes. ‘Old age’ attributions were associated with more frequent perceived health symptoms, poorer health maintenance behaviors and a greater likelihood of mortality. The probability of death was more than double among those who strongly attributed illness symptoms to “old age” as compared to those who did not.[1]

  1. Stewart TL, Chipperfield JG, Perry RP, Weiner B. (2011). Attributing illness to 'old age:' Consequences of a self-directed stereotype for health and mortality. Psychol Health.