Updated: May 18
Each May, the Federal Administration for Community Living (ACL) calls on us to acknowledge and celebrate the numerous and diverse contributions of older adults in every facet of our daily lives. This year’s theme for Older Americans Month – Age My Way – focuses on “aging in place,” a concept used in policy, research, and practice to describe the ability to live in one’s preferred setting for as long as possible while maintaining independence and quality of life as one advances in age (ACL, 2022). As an estimated 10,000 Americans mark their 65th birthday every day, with the vast majority preferring to live at home or in the community as opposed to a facility, we all can play a part in building age-friendly, inclusive communities. To ensure all older adults have access to high-quality, person-centered health and social services and supports, we must challenge our assumptions about older adulthood and address the age-related biases. To that end, we explore some of those widely held assumptions and their implications for the health and wellness of older adults.
“Older Adult” Age Threshold. Older adulthood may be defined differently based on various factors (real or perceived), but, in some contexts, older adulthood is defined solely based on chronological age. Most government-sponsored programs with age-related eligibility criteria (such as Social Security and Medicare) are generally limited to those who are age 65 and older. AARP (formerly American Association of Retired Persons) focuses more broadly on the various needs and interests of Americans ages 50 and older.
Growing Diversity of Older Adult Population. The federal government estimates that there were 54.1 million older adults (defined here as those ages 65 and above) in 2019, representing 16% of the nation’s total population (ACL, 2021). Between 1999 and 2030, the number of older adults who identify as a racial or ethnic minority in the United States (e.g., Asian American Pacific Islander, Black/African American, Hispanic, Latino) is projected to increase by 217%. Likewise, the number of older adults who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ) continues to increase (ACL, 2021). There is also considerable diversity among older adults in terms of national origin, immigration status, and primary language. These demographic trends have implications for the equitable provision of culturally-sensitive services and supports such as home health care, meal delivery, accessible housing, and language translation services.
The Impact of Ageism. Socio-cultural references continue to influence our perceptions about older adults and perpetuate stereotypes (our thoughts), prejudice (our feelings), and discrimination (our actions) towards our eldest relatives, colleagues, friends, and neighbors. Myopic portrayals of older adults as gray-haired nursing facility residents who walk with a cane negate the wide array of older adults’ lived experiences, personal goals, and accomplishments. Millions of older adults are active in their communities; they hold public offices, volunteer at the libraries and community health centers, participate in pickleball tournaments, and provide after-school care, among other meaningful, productive activities.
Just as older adults are everywhere, so too is ageism. Ageism, coined in 1969 and patterned on sexism and racism, describes systemic and interpersonal discrimination against older persons. In the workplace, ageism looks like unfair hiring practices or lack of on-the-job supports for older persons. Ageism also contributes to age-related declines in health, well-being, and quality of life.
Call to Action. All of society is at a disadvantage whenever and wherever ageism occurs. Older adults from marginalized communities often experience the harmful effects of racism, ableism, and xenophobia, among other systems of identity-based discrimination. Looking ahead, especially during this Older Americans Month, let us continue to develop community-informed, inclusive strategies to support older adults and those in their support networks.
Erica L. Reaves (she/her/hers) is a public health practitioner and consultant. The views expressed here are those of Dr. Reaves.