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How Ageism Impacts Mental and Physical Health, and Ways to Address the Issue

There is something wonderful about growing older. Of reviewing what has come before, accomplishment and regret, adventure and misadventure, gain and loss, places seen and dreamt of, a life that has taken shape and cleared a unique path. We each have our own. As we age and review the days gone by, many of us realize that we have contributed, loved, and learned. That we've lived a full life.

In sharp contrast, it is our youth-oriented society that embraces the superficial and stereotypical. We are way too busy being mesmerized by young, flashy, bright things and small screens. As a result, many groups and issues are marginalized and surrendered to impatience, ignorance, and a lack of context. It is this flippant undercurrent that makes ageism possible and prevalent in our society. To top it all off, many people rarely interact with someone much older or younger than themselves, even though intergenerational socialization benefits one’s health, both physically and mentally. This disconnect makes it even easier for people to succumb to ageist thoughts or actions.

Ageism exhibits itself as a passing remark or insult, by being ignored, patronized, treated with less dignity and respect, and by being denied employment, promotion, position. The result is that ageism is now considered a prominent risk factor of depression among seniors.

According to various studies on mental health and ageism, the seniors among us run a high risk of experiencing depression. Ageism is one of the causes. But more interestingly, it is ageism itself that limits and diverts seniors from receiving the appropriate treatment for depression. Among seniors there is a stigma associated with depression, so it often goes untreated. Seniors are hesitant to reach out for help when it comes to their emotional health. As a result they decline physically do to the stress that depression fosters. The consequences are alarming and can lead to falling into a downward spiral with serious medical conditions. This type of thinking has many buy into that wacky circular logic that they are indeed old and over the hill, which only adds to their depression and exacerbates any existing condition. Thoughts like, "My body should hurt, I'm old" hold many back from getting help. Our own implicit bias toward aging has us buy into and create a self-fulfilling prophecy that invites physical impairment and decline. The focus then gets placed on only treating the physical condition and ignoring the emotional.

Health care systems are slowly beginning to recognize this dilemma and are looking for ways to get seniors engaged in addressing depression when it descends. One way this is being approached is by training primary care physicians to look for and ask their aging patients about their moods. Turns out that seniors are far more likely to address mental health issues when they are encouraged to do so by their physician. A simple conversation can help break down the stigma that many seniors feel. By addressing emotional issues, it is also becoming clear that many physical conditions are improved and even healed.

Confronting ageism is a systemic undertaking that requires education for our society as a whole. It needs to be raised in schools, in the workplace, in our families. But perhaps, on the way to the larger solutions, the first place to tackle this issue is with ourselves. It’s time to do some self-reflection to discover and question our beliefs about our own aging process. How do our beliefs about aging limit our lives? How do they affect our health?

By confronting ageism perhaps we can also move closer to embracing our own self care. Learning to ask for help when we need it, recognizing the signs of depression in seniors when it appears and gaining the skills to cope with it effectively is not something we have to wait to learn. Speaking frankly with our health care professionals can be one of the best preventative measures to keep us from having our health embark on a downward spiral. Finding a path to having safe conversations with a friend or family member, sharing our concerns and realizing that we are not alone, even as we age and experience so much change, is vital to our wellbeing. It is in community that we will find the path to alleviating many of the stigmas that have us isolated, suffering, and declining way before our time.

So question ageism, be proactive when it comes to healthcare, and continue to nurture and grow and develop in your life.



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About the Author(s)

As a Volunteer Caregiver to the Zen Hospice Project and a Course Manager at the CareGivers Project, Audrey Meinertzhagen is passionate about improving the standards of care for older adults and educating caregivers on the principles of mindfulness and self-care.

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