Disclaimer: Names have been changed at the request of those involved for the sake of privacy and dignity.
Jodie is an incredibly talented artist. Her rural landscapes dot the walls of her villa and her bedroom. The intricate details of the country settings are made even more incredible when it is discovered that all the locations are painted from Jodie’s own memory. Her modesty means she adamantly refuses to take any compliments about the works, preferring instead to criticise the tiny imperfections that only an artist can see.
Jodie is also in her late-70s and living in a residential aged care facility. In fact, her talent for painting wasn’t uncovered until she had her first art therapy session in the facility, in which she showed off a talent she hadn’t explored at all through the years. A major part of Jodie’s life has been her involvement in her local rugby league club, where she was heavily involved in team management and business operations for many decades. She maintains an undying love for her footy team, and frequent visits to the club show that she’s still a familiar face and her significant contributions are often celebrated.
On one standard Tuesday, Jodie had to catch a taxi into Brisbane city for a regular hospital appointment. When the taxi arrived, Jodie saw that it was a larger, van style, Maxi Taxi. Due to age-related complications, Jodie has limited mobility. On this particular day, the taxi driver refused to call Jodie a smaller taxi and refused to assist Jodie into the back of the taxi. After some time, Jodie hauled herself into the back of the cab and they were off.
On arrival to the hospital, the taxi driver remarked that she was slower than most people and asked her to get out of his vehicle. Jodie sat for a moment and asked once again for assistance, this time, clearly upset with the time all of this was taking – the driver finally agreed. Briskly opening the side door, grabbing Jodie roughly on both arms, and applying enough pressure to make Jodie feel like she was being pulled out onto the road. Jodie showed me the grab marks on her bruised arm that persisted. Jodie made one comment to the driver before leaving, “When you’re my age, I hope that no-one treats you the way you have treated me.”
While a more extreme example, this is just one way that ageism (age-related discrimination) manifests in our society. Ageism is surprisingly rife in western society and although many people would claim it does not affect their daily thinking, it pervades culture in interesting and unrecognised ways. Simple, “harmless” generalisations about older generations and assumptions about older peoples’ abilities are basic ways in which discrimination manifests and paves the way for more sinister forms of ageism. For instance, the taxi driver’s intolerance of Jodie’s impaired mobility could most likely be attributed to a sub-conscious belief that, as a younger person, he was superior to her. Current ideas regarding ageing implicitly perpetuated in the West centre around people becoming less capable and more worthless as they grow older. This is demonstrated by the countless stories of people unable to find work once they get to the later stage of the “middle-aged” bracket.
Of course, the most extreme manifestation of ageism is elder abuse, one of the most globally prevalent forms of abuse. Elder abuse merits an article to itself, but it is safe to say that stories of physical, sexual, financial and psychological abuse and neglect are not hard to find. Evidently, the mindset of many perpetrators of elder abuse is based in ageist stereotypes and judgements of the older victims.
As with other forms of discrimination, ageism can be questioned philosophically. The big question is, what part of human reasoning causes ageism? Many people have provided a range of answers, all of which probably hold some degree of truth. Some would say that the common perception that older people are a ‘drain’ on society and on public resources, causes people to treat older people with disregard. Yet, this perception itself is inherently ageist. Many older people do contribute economically and the generalisation that all older people do not serve any purpose in society is central to the problem of ageism (and is nothing more than a gross stereotype). In fact, in many instances where older people are not contributing, it is because of younger people in the workforce refusing to work with them.
Another interesting, and perhaps more philosophical answer would be that older people are treated poorly because of a human fear of growing old. While I am not in any place to deny or confirm that answer, I do not see fear as a valid reason to treat someone as less than oneself.
The story of Jodie is not unique, it’s not even especially remarkable. The taxi driver was reported and is pending disciplinary action. Jodie claims that she’s okay but she has stated, “I don’t feel like I’m comfortable going out on my own anymore.” Yet, it’s the words that follow that floor me, and in the many instances of ageism that I’ve been informed of over the last 4 years of working in, or close to, the aged care industry, these words always seem to follow. “Don’t worry, it’s just how it is.”