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Challenging ageism: uncovering the impact on society & ourselves

Physical fitness and mental health get a lot of press when it comes to overall wellbeing. But there’s another crucial aspect that flies under the radar: ageism. It’s a deeply rooted issue that affects us all – and its repercussions can be far-reaching.

“Ageism can be experienced by anyone at any age ­– and younger people can most definitely encounter the prejudices and discrimination that are part of it,” says Dr Rachel Ambagtsheer, Research Fellow and Senior Learning Facilitator at Torrens University Australia.

Launched by the university in June, the new free online course Challenging Ageism tackles this topic head-on. Designed by Rachel, this one-hour short course equips individuals with the tools to recognise and address ageism in daily life.

“We hope to raise awareness of how widespread ageism is, to give course participants the skills to recognise it and provide them with actionable strategies and ideas for tackling ageism wherever they might encounter it,” says Rachel, who is also the Principal Investigator for a large MRFF (Medical Research Future Fund) project titled IMPAACT (IMproving the PArticipation of older Australians in policy decision-making on common health CondiTions), which is aligned with this short course.

Shining a light on ageism

Ageism influences our attitudes, behaviours and perceptions towards aging and older individuals. Whether it be the casual dismissal of an elderly person’s abilities or the underlying assumptions we make about aging, ageism pervades our society, yet it often goes unnoticed.

“It is entrenched within society,” says Rachel. “For example, people think nothing about making an age-related joke or comment and, indeed, frequently make those jokes and comments about themselves. This shows the inherent bias we all carry within us around ageing. It truly is everywhere.”

Ageism’s impact on health and society

Ageism isn’t just a matter of casual remarks; it can have significant implications for our health. Negative attitudes towards aging can lead to social isolation, diminished self-worth and even financial insecurity.

“We know that ageism – whether it’s directed towards oneself or comes from others such as healthcare providers ­– can have significant negative impacts on older people’s physical and mental health and wellbeing,” says Rachel. “It can lead to social isolation, loneliness and, as the World Health Organization has identified, ageism can contribute to financial insecurity and a decreased quality of life.”

Rachel adds that ageism in healthcare can hinder access to essential treatments, affecting older individuals’ overall wellbeing.

“Pervasive ageism in the healthcare sector can also affect older people’s access to preventative and curative interventions. For example, older people who go to their doctor about muscular pain might be told, ‘Oh, that’s just old age’ and dismissed without further investigation. Also, these engrained attitudes may create blind spots regarding who might be considered eligible for treatment such as surgery and who isn’t, depending on the patient’s age.

“As well, negative self-perceptions of ageing among older people can have an impact on their ability to advocate for themselves. They might not believe they’re entitled to a service because they are, in their minds, ‘too old’.”

Ageism’s impact extends beyond individuals, permeating our social structures and creating an unequal and divisive society.

“Ageism costs our societies billions of dollars because of the detrimental impact it can have on older people’s health,” says Rachel. “What we call systemic or structural ageism – which may be entrenched in a workplace whose HR policies discriminate against older people, for example – has a significant impact on how society’s organised and how we view older people. That impact trickles down to the individual, who absorbs the ageist messages. It is a perpetuating cycle.”

Building self-awareness

Torrens University’s Challenging Ageism course is an opportunity to end that cycle. Rachel says achieving a more age-inclusive society begins with education and self-awareness – regardless of our age.

“The short course is open to anyone with an interest in learning how to recognise and challenge it. Unfortunately, most of us will encounter ageism at some point in our lives – whether we are on the receiving end or see it being directed at someone else,” she says.

“Challenging Ageism should enable course participants to uncover and reflect on their own unconscious biases and assumptions. And maybe it will help them to consider how their biases might have an impact on their own experiences of ageing.”

A unique perspective on ageism

Rachel’s is one of very few ageism courses available and is part of Torrens University’s commitment to “Be Good” – to contribute to society beyond the realms of education. With inclusivity at its core, the one-hour course is accessible and free of charge to all, allowing individuals from diverse backgrounds to help dismantle the barriers of ageism and foster a culture of respect and appreciation for all generations.

WellBeing Team

WellBeing Team

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Challenging ageism: uncovering the impact on society & ourselves