Unlike racism, sexism, ableism, or other types of discriminations, anyone can experience ageism. It is the one “ism” that everyone who is lucky enough to live a long life will experience. However, it is generally not taken as seriously as the other forms of inequities.

Simply put, ageism is the discrimination or prejudice against someone based solely on their age. While we may be more familiar with ageism, it can apply to people of all ages. The employee that follows a customer through the store just because that customer is a teenager is displaying ageism. Millennial and boomer stereotypes and jokes? Ageism.

Often disguised as a harmless joke, ageism is one of the only widely socially accepted forms of discrimination. The stereotypes tend to cast older adults as isolated, depressed, and ill. Aside from affecting older adult’s confidence and well-being, ageism can lead to internalized beliefs that impact a person’s physical and mental health, loneliness, and ultimately increased rates of mortality.

Ageism is perhaps the most apparent in the workplace. An AARP survey from 2020 reported that 78% of older workers saw or experienced ageism in their place of work. Although older employees may have the most experience and knowledge, they are regularly overlooked in favor of younger workers. Some older employees are even forced into an early retirement by businesses that prioritize youth over experience. With today’s crumbling economy forcing older adults to stay at work longer, an aging workforce means ageism is becoming even more apparent.

Another place where ageism becomes obvious is in healthcare settings. When your doctor foregoes running tests and x-rays and chalks your aches and pains up to part of aging, you experience ageism. Even more concerning is the accounts of doctors focusing less on and giving less treatments to their older patients. The effects of ageism in the healthcare setting don’t get any less bleak – experiencing ageism or holding ageist beliefs about themselves can make older patients less likely to seek care, less likely to engage in preventative behaviours, and more likely to accept undertreatment from their healthcare provider. To eliminate ageism from healthcare settings, changes need to be made at institutional and governmental levels. Education is a good place to start – better training for healthcare providers, including recognizing and dismantling ageist biases, and training to increase awareness of how to properly respond to the needs of older patients. The healthcare system must focus on the wellness and strengths of the patient, rather than the disease and age.

How can you combat ageism on an individual level? Choose your words with care. If you find yourself saying things like, “senior moment!” when you experience forgetfulness, or telling someone, “you look good for your age!” you are exhibiting ageist attitudes. Ditch the “over the hill” birthday supplies and cards that make fun of getting old.

We’re all going to be old one day. Even if you don’t think ageism affects you now, it will. Before you make a joke about age, think about how you would feel if someone was saying it to you, or your mother. Ageism affects us all.