Elder Abuse Awareness Day 2008

Sunday, June 15 marks the third anniversary of World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, an occasion intended to bring greater recognition to the hidden problem of elder abuse and neglect. Although it has only recently begun to gain wider attention, elder abuse has been occurring for many generations and is deeply rooted in our attitudes and beliefs about the value of older adults. While racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination are no longer considered acceptable in our society, ageism continues to be widespread.

Ageism is a social attitude in which older adults are viewed in stereotypical ways. These stereotypes stem from myths about the aging process and being old. They are primarily negative in nature, such as the assumption that all older adults are frail, disabled or cognitively impaired. A lapse in memory is often referred to as a “senior moment,” a person’s aches and pains are seen as a sign of “getting old” and older adults are viewed by some as a burden on society. This is ageism.

Ageism lays the foundation for elder abuse in many ways. When older adults are not respected, they become “fair game” in the eyes of abusers and other criminals. When older adults are seen as frail, vulnerable or confused, they become the preferred targets of abuse because they are thought to be less able to resist or report. Older adults who do report abuse may be seen as less believable or their case less likely to be successfully prosecuted because of assumptions about the reliability of their memories. When older adults are considered less valuable than other segments of the population, the problems they face as individuals or as a societal group are easily discounted or rationalized away. Serious problems like physical, emotional and sexual abuse, neglect and financial exploitation may be characterized as rare events and, thus, not given the attention or resources necessary.

What can we do about ageism? The Canadian Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse has these suggestions:

1.) Recognize myths about aging and challenge them in your daily life.

Speak up when someone tells an ageist joke or is disrespectful to older adults. Tactfully let him or her know that these statements are hurtful and offensive. The more ageism remains hidden, the more people believe that it is an acceptable way to behave.

2.) Go beyond the stereotypes of aging.

Recognize that labels like “elderly” or “senior citizen” tell us little about a person’s personality, physical health, mental capacity or ability to contribute to the community. Take care not to stereotype older people. Instead, celebrate the individual, collective and life-long contributions of older adults to our society.

3.) Learn more about aging, ageism and discrimination.

The more we know about the aging process and what to expect as we grow older, the better prepared we will be to resist and dispel the negative stereotypes of aging. Ageism often leads to the discrimination of older adults in housing, health care and employment. Recognize where this is happening in our community and take steps to change it.

4.) Listen to the voices of seniors.

They are in the best position to tell us how ageism affects their lives. They are also the ones who can let us know what they need and how they wish to contribute to our society.

5.) Build intergenerational bridges to promote better understanding.

Ageism thrives on ignorance. The more people directly interact with those of another generation, the more opportunity they have to realize the value of those people as individuals. This, in turn, reduces the likelihood of perpetuating negative attitudes of young and old alike. Interaction with people who do not fit the stereotype is a powerful deterrent against ageism.

6.) Monitor and respond to ageist material.

In order for ageism to be reduced, we must change the typically negative ways that older adults are portrayed in the news, on television and in the movies. Write letters to editors, sponsors and producers expressing opposition to these negative portrayals. On occasions when these media do portray the value and positive contributions of older adults, write letters praising those responsible and encouraging more of the same.

7.) Advocate for change.

Policies that perpetuate ageism can be changed if enough people make their voices heard. Keep informed on key aging issues and policies. Participate in local government. Contact your elected representatives and government officials to inform them of your views and advocate for change.

We all have a responsibility to do our part to combat ageism and prevent the abuse and neglect of older adults in our community. Together, we can make a difference.

Adapted from a paper by the Canadian Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse. Online at