When agism makes you suddenly feel old

Martine Lagacé

by Nathalie Vanasse

“Whenever you say I’m an old man, I’m never the old man you’re talking about. I am none of the old men that you want me to be.” 

Those are the words of columnist Pierre Foglia in one of his scathing columns, appearing in La Presse on January 31, 2009. Is this the spirit of the times? One thing is certain… the writer echoes the concerns of Martine Lagacé, a professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Ottawa, who is studying the way in which our society views aging people.

Agism, or discrimination on the grounds of age, is harder to identify than racism or sexism. One rarely sees open hatred toward seniors.

“Our feelings on aging are mixed because all of us will be seniors one day, unless we die prematurely. Nevertheless, age-based prejudice continues, particularly in the media and in advertising, which often show simplistic images of lively, active retired people,” says Lagacé. She goes on to say that images of decrepit old people are just as wrong, because they are representations that smear seniors.

In her research, Lagacé is attempting to understand how and to what extent communication is a vehicle for agism, which can weaken the psychological health of the seniors who are the targets of the communication. Agism sometimes occurs even before retirement age is reached.

From 2006 to 2008, Lagacé and her colleagues, including professor Francine Tougas, studied the impact of agist communication in the workplace on the psychological engagement and self-esteem of Quebec health care workers aged 45 and over. “Through those studies, we were able to validate a model that clearly shows that agist communication results in these experienced workers withdrawing,” explains Lagacé. “The stereotypes lead not only to psychological withdrawal at work but also to withdrawal from the labour force altogether. These individuals end up considering retirement. Workers leave the workplace unhappy, which can affect their quality of life in retirement.” 

This year, Lagacé has chosen to focus her work on agism in the context of elder care in long-term care facilities.“In light of the studies on agism in the workplace, we now want to understand how agism can occur in the context of caring for seniors who are losing their independence, by studying the com-munication dynamics in the caregiver–senior relationship,” says Lagacé.

With her colleagues at the Observatory on Aging and Society in Montréal, the researcher conducted a series of semi-structured interviews with senior residents in a Montréal-area residential and long-term care centre (CHSLD). “While the senior residents we interviewed appear to understand the demanding working conditions of caregivers and are even somewhat empathetic towards the situation of caregivers, they appear uncomfortable with respect to the quality of the caregivers’ daily interactions with them,” says Lagacé. Analysis results suggest that seniors are not recognized as individuals and are sometimes spoken to as if they were children, with language that is juvenile, if not controlling.

Health care aides admit to using such language but are not necessarily aware of its agist connotations. “There is a certain disconnect between the perceptions of the two groups,” says Lagacé. Health care aides do not view language such as ‘it’s time for our little lady to eat her little goodies [pills]!’ as being condescending but rather as being fond and affectionate. Agism is implicit in these cases, explains the researcher. Other studies on agism in health care settings, and in particular studies conducted in the United States, show that agist language undermines self-esteem and the feeling of self-determination in seniors. It is reasonable to suggest that those effects are even more harmful to the psychological health of ailing seniors who are losing their independence.” 

The phenomenon of agism is quite a paradox given our aging population and increased life expectancy. Lagacé believes that it is crucial to change this mentality and focus on the contributions of seniors instead of creating false representations of old age or, even more importantly, instead of presenting a picture focusing only on the economic burden of an aging population. “To bring about that change in mentality, we must first and foremost become aware of implicit and explicit forms of agism and understand that communication is often a powerful conduit of these. Concrete actions to prevent agist communication and practices will be necessary not only for vulnerable seniors receiving care but also for aging workers,” says the researcher. 

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