Ageism and Mental Health
Monday, January 7, 2019
Posted by: Karen Hardin
Written by: Annika Goldman, first-year student in Miami University’s Clinical Psychology Program
What is ageism?
Ohio’s population of individuals 65 and older is currently at 16.5 percent. This percentage is expected to rise as the Baby Boomer generation enters older adulthood, and experience longer life expectancies. With this in mind, mental health clinicians should be prepared to recognize older adults’ unique protective factors, risk factors, and the pervasive, but rarely recognized, issue of ageism.
Eighty percent of older adults reported experiencing ageism, defined as social stigma related to old age or older people. Examples of ageism include, but are not limited to, assumptions of memory loss or physical impairment due to age, being ignored or taken less seriously because of age, and demeaning stereotypes portrayed in the media based on age. At a Senate hearing before the Special Committee on Aging, actress Doris Roberts testified, "My peers and I are portrayed as dependent, helpless, unproductive and demanding rather than deserving." She further stated, "In reality, the majority of seniors are self-sufficient, middle-class consumers with more assets than most young people, and substantial time and talent to offer society."
How does ageism affect mental health?
Becca Levy PhD, a leading researcher on the effects of ageism, conducted research on self-perception. This research revealed that people over the age of 50 years old, who have positive self-perceptions of aging, lived 7.5 years longer than those with negative self-perceptions of aging. Further, those exposed to positive stereotypes had better memory and balance. In fact, exposure to negative age stereotypes have been significantly associated with anxiety, depression, lower self-esteem, higher blood pressure, and even poorer performance on cognitive assessments. Ageism also influences diagnosis and treatment of clients. Helms and Gee (2003) found that older clients are rated by their clinicians as having more diagnostic symptoms and worse prognoses compared to younger clients, despite all information being matched across age groups. Further, older clients were viewed as less able to develop a positive therapeutic relationship, less appropriate for therapy, and less likely to recover. In this study, clinicians were less willing to accept older people as clients.
The disparity between mental health care needs among older adults and the number of mental health clinicians with training to work with older adults was considered on the verge of a “crisis” by a 2012 Institute of Medicine report. This disparity may be due to lack of funding and training opportunities, lower interest in working with older adults, and potentially therapeutic pessimism.
What can psychologists do to fight ageism?
- Include ageism in our conversations and initiatives for diversity, inclusion, and social justice.
- Support more professional development and training opportunities focusing on treatment of older adults.
- Emphasize the psychological and individual strengths of aging individuals to combat ageist stereotypes.
- Become more aware of our own age biases and assumptions and work towards mitigating them (i.e. not assuming that an older person has memory loss or experiences a disability).
- When writing or speaking about this population, use more inclusive language such as “older adults,” “people over 65,” or “seniors” as opposed to “elderly” or “geriatric”.
- Include older adults in psychological research. Research suggests that older adults have unique protective and risk factors for psychopathology, but little is known about these due to a lack of age-specific research.
- When discussing aging and mental health issues, spread a healthy aging narrative such as the following: mental illness is less prevalent, emotional regulation is more stable, and psychopathology is treatable in older age.
- Advocate at the local, state, and national level. Speak to lawmakers about the need for mental health services and Medicare reimbursement on behalf of older adults.
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Levy, B. R., Slade, M. D., Kunkel, S. R., & Kasl, S. V. (2002). Longevity increased by positive
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Roberts, D. (2002, September 4). Doris Roberts Remarks. Speech presented at Senate Special
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United States Census Bureau. (2018). Persons 65 years and over, percent. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/oh/AGE775217
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