The World Health Organization (WHO) has released its first report on the issue of ageism.
- One-in-two people globally held moderately or highly ageist attitudes
- One-in-three older people report having been a target of ageism
- WHO finds healthcare rationing by age is widespread
It found it affects billions of people globally and is a damaging human rights issue and public health problem.
It’s come as no surprise to artist Sally Rees.
When she was preparing for an exhibition at the Museum of Old and New Art (Mona), a big birthday she was about to celebrate was at the forefront of her mind.
“I really wanted to own turning 50, I wanted to feel proud of it and I wanted it to be something for people to look forward to,” she said.
But as she was putting together her video installations, she became increasingly aware that ageing, in particular for women, loomed as a frightening prospect.
“I’d never been concerned about my age, I had never been someone who worried about getting older,” she said.
“I was also reading a lot of statistics in the news about how this demographic of older women in Australia was the largest growing demographic of homelessness it was the largest demographic of people signing on to [JobSeeker].”
Rees has created a series of videos featuring her mother, friends and colleagues using bird calls to connect with each other.
She wanted it to be a celebration of ageing.
“So many of the women I worked with…a lot of them talk about that feeling of suddenly being invisible, being ignored,” she said.
The World Health Organization report includes a survey of more than 83,000 people from 57 countries covering all six WHO regions of the world.
It showed at least one in every two people held moderately or highly ageist attitudes.
The highest prevalence of ageism was in low-income and lower-middle-income countries, for example India, Nigeria, and Yemen.
Lower prevalence rates were found in higher-income countries including Australia, Japan and Poland.
In Europe, one-in-three older people report having been a target of ageism.
Marlene Krasovitsky, co-chair and director of the Every Age Counts Campaign, was not shocked by the high prevalence of ageism.
“We have breathed in these negative attitudes about getting older and towards older people and about this phase of life since we were children,” she said.
Health care rationing by age widespread
The WHO report defines ageism as when age is used to categorise and divide people in ways that lead to harm, disadvantage and injustice, affecting people aged 50 or over as well as younger people.
The report found health care rationing by age is widespread.
One study of five medical centres in the United States looked at how age affected the decisions of medical staff to withhold life-sustaining therapies in 9,000 patients who had illnesses with high mortality rates.
Medical staff were more likely to withhold ventilator support, surgery and dialysis as the patient’s age increased.
For ventilator support, the rate of decisions to withhold therapy increased 15 per cent with each decade of age; for surgery, the increase per decade was 19 per cent.
The report found the COVID-19 pandemic has not only taken a devastating toll on the lives of many older people around the world but exposed discrimination against older adults.
“Whether it’s the impacts on their own health or losing their jobs or the isolation or exclusion from treatments [COVID-19] has really shone a light on ageism, ” Dr Krasovitsky said.
The report quotes a recent global review of the prevalence of violence against older people which found some 15.7 per cent of older people — or almost one-in-six — are victims of abuse.
The Council on the Ageing Australia chief executive Ian Yates described ageism as the last “ism”.
“It’s actually something that is endemic in our society, is dangerous in our society and needs our core institutions to address it,” he said.
Breaking down the stigma
The WHO says that policy and law changes, education and improved intergenerational contact can help break down the stigma surrounding age.
As the chief executive of Aged Care Provider Glenview Community Services, Lucy O’Flaherty can attest to the benefits of intergenerational contact.
Until the pandemic ended the program, her facility regularly hosted visits from childcare centres, allowing elderly residents and preschoolers to spend time together.
She said many residents experienced improved mobility through spending time with the children.
“These lovely little friendships started to happen, our elders were moving around more, our elders were participating more — so it had some really therapeutic impacts,” she said.
“We are absolutely hanging out for that day when we can have children safely in the aged care facility.”
The WHO report also indicates there could be economic benefits from addressing ageism.
It quotes a study that found that in Australia if 5 per cent more people aged 55 or older were employed, there would be a positive impact of $48 billion on the national economy annually.
Dr Krasovitsky said the report was a game changer.
“Now we have this wonderful opportunity to blow that open and to start to build awareness to start educating ourselves and to start becoming part of this global movement to reduce ageism,” she said.
Mr Yates said alongside the aged care royal commission, the WHO report highlights that ageism is an issue that can no longer be ignored.
“In the same way that we turn attention to quotas for women in senior positions we also need to be addressing ageism in that same kind of forceful and systemic way,” he said.