October 1 Is the International Day of Older Persons

This year's theme is "Celebrating Older Human Rights Champions," which calls attention to the harmful effects of prejudice against seniors.

A group of seniors expressing solidarity with a group handshake

On this day each year, the United Nations focuses on the growing global population of seniors, which today is 700 million, and which is projected to reach 2 billion by midcentury. This recognition event not only calls attention to the needs of the oldest people on the planet, but also emphasizes their invaluable contributions.

This year's proclamation shares these goals:

  • Promote the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and what they mean in the daily lives of older persons.
  • Raise the visibility of older people as participating members of society committed to improving the enjoyment of human rights in many areas of life and not just those that affect them immediately.
  • Reflect on progress and challenges in ensuring full and equal enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms by older persons.
  • Engage broad audiences across the world and mobilize people for human rights at all stages of life.

Prejudice: not only a social issue, but a health factor

Many studies show that being the target of prejudice harms a person's health. The stress of coping with racism and other discrimination raises a person's risk of many health problems, from heart disease to dementia.

And in June 2018, the Association for Psychological Science published a series of articles showing that prejudice not only harms the health of groups who are on the receiving end, but also is stressful for people who hold the prejudicial attitudes!

Ageism: a prejudice that knows no borders

For a person experiencing prejudice due to their race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation or other characteristic, the effect is magnified when they grow older and experience negative attitudes about age.

And on its own, ageism harms our health. The Caring Right at Home newsletter has reported on the extensive research of Yale University School of Public Health epidemiologist Becca Levy, who famously showed that young people who have negative attitudes about older adults are less likely to be healthy when they reach their own later years. Levy's most recent study shows that combating age prejudice could be a way to lower the rate of Alzheimer's disease. Levy said, "We found that positive age beliefs can reduce the risk of one of the most established genetic risk factors of dementia. This makes a case for implementing a public health campaign against ageism."

Most of us will face ageism.

If protecting the well-being of our older relatives and other seniors isn't enough motivation to fight ageist attitudes, consider that everyone who lives long enough will have their turn to cope with negativity about age. What can we do to turn things around?

Experts on prejudice of every type say one of the best ways to combat bias is to spend time with people who are different from us, getting to know them and learning more about their lives. Studies show that young people who have ample contact with older relatives and other seniors have a higher opinion of older adults. Though today in the developed world there are fewer opportunities for older and younger people to connect, we can promote intergenerational activities. For example, volunteerism goes both ways: Older adults volunteer in schools, childcare facilities and youth groups, while younger people volunteer at senior centers and senior support organizations. Volunteers of every age can work together to make a difference.

Examine your own attitude.

Psychologists say many seniors have internalized negative messages. If you are lucky enough to have reached your own senior years, it's time to, as the kids say, "Check yourself." Are you helping to perpetuate negative stereotypes? Be aware of disparaging language you might have picked up during the years. Are "geezer," "old fogey" or "little old lady" in your vocabulary? Do you make jokes about being "over the hill"?

And dig a little deeper. Are you offended if someone offers you the senior discount or a seat on the bus? Do you dislike the word "old"? Do you buy products because they make you "look younger," rather than "healthier"? Are you giving out signals that old = bad?

Measure yourself by your own standards. Don't compare your appearance and abilities unfavorably with younger people. Even comparing ourselves to other seniors can be harmful. "Successful aging" has many faces. Some people make it to a ripe old age barely scathed by health problems. Others face health challenges, but tackle them head-on and make the best of life.

A recent study from North Carolina State University even showed that people who don't feel as well off financially as others — whether or not they really are — have a lower opinion about aging. Associate professor Shevaun Newport said, "The urge to 'keep up with the Joneses' appears to have real consequences as we grow older."

So this year, as we celebrate the International Day of Older Persons, consider that growing older is something people from every culture have in common. Improving attitudes about aging could have global benefits!

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.