Ageism, stereotyping and discrimination against individuals or groups based on their age, can contribute to inaccurate and misleading information or influence COVID-19-related health care discussions and decisions of older people. Conversations and decisions about health treatments for COVID-19 need to account for the diversity of older adults and the complexities of old age. Unfortunately, news accounts and social media postings convey that many discussions about the virus and healthcare rationing devalue older adults’ lives as unworthy or a reasonable “sacrifice.”
Ageism can include prejudicial attitudes, discriminatory practices, or institutional policies and practices that perpetuate stereotypical beliefs. Further, ageism interacts with other stigmatized identities such as sex, race, gender, and sexual orientation to exacerbate advantages and disadvantages across groups.
Here are some tips to help older people, their families, caregivers and health professionals confront ageism during this pandemic:
Ageism is pervasive and often difficult to detect. Be aware of your own ageist attitudes, language, and behaviors. Strive to avoid exclusive and discriminatory language against older adults. Remember that we are all aging and that, hopefully, we will all become an older adult.
Speak out against ageism
Speak out against ageist attitudes expressed by others, including institutional leaders and the media. Many people are not aware of ways their language and behaviors negatively portray older adults.
Remember that older adults are diverse and have intersecting identities
Older adults vary widely in race, ethnicity, health status, functional status, needs, risks, position in marginalized or privileged groups, and by extension, their resources and ability to cope effectively during a crisis. When addressing and responding to COVID-19 outbreak, use an individualized lifespan approach to meet the needs of and care for all individuals, especially older adults, not just their chronological age.
Pay attention to nuances in the data
For example, view the relatively high hospitalization rate for adults aged 65-74 within the context of the relatively low mortality rate for this age group. These statistics suggest that many older adults benefit from medical treatment for COVID-19. Further, people who reach age 65 have an average life expectancy of 19.5 more years (20.6 years for females and 18.1 years for males). These individuals have nearly two decades of life remaining if they recover from COVID-19.
Spread the facts
The onslaught of information about COVID-19 is overwhelming and might contribute to misinformation and misunderstanding that can exacerbate ageist attitudes. Sharing accurate information is vital to ensure responses to COVID-19 benefits everyone. Make sure health workers, policy makers and health care administrators are aware of diversity among older adults. Older adults in other marginalized populations may be at particular risk for the negative consequences of ageism. If you work with these groups, advocating for their needs will be particularly important.
Acknowledgement: This tip sheet was developed by the APA Committee on Aging.