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August 12th, 2015

Ageism – The Hidden Discrimination

Sanford Altman, Esq.
So here you are, 55 years old, house with a mortgage you can just afford, helping your kids finish school and maybe planning a nice vacation.  You have a nice, secure position with a solid company.  Suddenly the recession hits and your company is no longer so solid, your job is eliminated and the bottom drops out of your life.  Three years later and counting, you are still out of work and you have truly come to believe that, “no one wants to a hire a 55 year old.”

Another scenario: an 82 year old woman with physical health problems but her mind is as sharp as a tack.  She asks her daughter to give her a ride to a doctor’s appointment.  When the two of them step into the doctor’s office, the mother because totally invisible and, apparently, hard of hearing.  The doctor speaks about the mother’s health condition to the daughter only.  When the daughter reminds him that her mother is totally capable of understanding him, he momentarily turns his attention to the mother as if seeing her for the first time and doubles the volume of his voice.  Then he turns back to the daughter to continue the conversation.  Voice normal again.  

These are just two examples – younger senior, older senior – of “Ageism” where you are no longer treated as person but, instead, as an old person.  It can be subtle or not so subtle.  It can have a small impact on your life or a devastating one.  It’s “younger is better”.  It is age discrimination. 

Ageism, like racism and sexism,will categorize, stereotype and separate a group from what we typically refer to as “mainstream society”.   While you may be a member of one or more or even none of the other groups often subject to discrimination, unless you die young, everyone will be a potential target of Ageism. It can be for economic, political, social or even the psychological motivation of being superior to another group.  It can lead to neglect, abuse and economic hardship.  It is a devaluation of both group and individual worth.

Take the example of the 82 year old woman in the doctor’s office.  Not only is she missing the opportunity to assert herself in her role as the best source of information needed by a doctor, but also, given enough time and repetition of such scenarios, she can develop internally a less positive self perception of aging.  You may think that this perception doesn’t matter.  However, the well regarded research entitled “Longevity Increased by Positive Self-perceptions of Aging” spearheaded by Becca R. Levy and Martin D. Slade of Yale University found otherwise.  Their study found that “older individuals with more positive self perceptions of aging… lived 7.5 years longer than those with less positive self perception of aging.”  Are you ready to give up seven and a half years of your life just for having a negative attitude about yourself? 

So what can be done to combat Ageism? First, of course, is raising awareness especially in cases where its existence is simply ignored.  If it comes up in a personal contact, do not hesitate to challenge it.  When dealing with such professionals as doctors and, yes, even lawyers, you may need to be persistent to get your message through.  Stakes are often higher and you deserve to be spoken to directly and your words need to be given full attention.

As far as Ageism in the workplace is concerned, this is a pervasive and long term issue which affects low paid laborers all the way through high salaried management.  Laws against age discrimination are on the books but successful actions under these laws are very difficult.  Progress against Ageism in the workplace needs to be a group effort – county, state, local, business and individuals.  But the process is the same – change the attitudes of employers as to the value of hiring seniors and change attitudes of the seniors as to their inherent value to businesses.  In this way, if we persevere, we can make Ageism a thing of the past.

If you are a senior job-seeker or a business looking to hire seniors, please call:  Orange Works Career Center at 845-568-5090 or 845-346-1100.

Sanford R. Altman is an attorney practicing elder law, estate administration and estate planning with Jacobowitz and Gubits in Walden. He is a member of the AARP Legal Services Network and chairman of the Town of Montgomery Seniors Independence Project. This column is intended to give general legal information, not legal advice.

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