By Gail Evans
“The pandemic has amplified ageism,” read the headline in the May 1st Los Angeles Times. “It’s open season for discrimination against older people.” If anyone can speak to ageism, it’s my friend Jack Kupferman, I thought. So, I called and asked him to weigh in. Jack is President of New York City’s Gray Panthers, an advocacy organization that’s been fighting for the rights of older people since the early 70s. Working with the Florence Belsky Foundation, Gray Panthers recently developed Senior Strong NYC (www.seniorstrongnyc.org), a Resource Guide with sections on how to live well and, yes, even thrive, despite being shut-in by the coronavirus.
Jack agreed that we’re seeing more instances of overtly ageist behavior and rhetoric. But he is less concerned about the flare-up of anti-elder sentiment than about the deeply embedded institutional ageism uncovered by the pandemic. As with homophobe-ism, racism and sexism—the other “isms” that plague our society—there are personal and intentional acts of ageism, and then there are the more insidious and pernicious institutional biases. These pervade our social structures and affect how we distribute resources, power and opportunity. Systemic and diffused, they are hard to eradicate. And because their noxious nature is disguised as societal norms, we unwittingly accept and even subscribe to them. Ageism perpetuates inequalities in the workplace, housing, medicine, marketing, advertising, entertainment, the media—the list could go on. It works by devaluing older people as a group, shunting their interests aside in policy and practice decisions, and treating them either with pity, or with contempt and neglect, solely on the basis of their age.
Institutional ageism in long-term care has now come home to roost in the horrific spread of the virus in nursing homes, Jack pointed out. “Profit has won out over people, time and time again,” he said bitterly. “Nursing home residents are mostly old, shut away, have no voice, and are literally invisible, so they’re easily expendable. Even before the pandemic, many homes run by for-profits were cited for poor infection-disease control and inadequate and ill-prepared staffing. But the operators didn’t care. They continued to underpay staff and ignore quality of care concerns because fines and penalties were low, and, anyway, they could count on society turning a blind eye. Now, we are horrified at the deaths. But where were we when alarms were raised decades ago? Things now may not be as bad as they used to be, and I’m not saying all nursing homes were a disaster. Nursing homes being petri dishes for infection, we probably would have had this terrible outcome no matter what. But there needn’t have been this dramatic and excessive loss of life.”
Jack cited other examples of institutional ageism. “Home care workers are notoriously underpaid because we don’t value the lives of the elders they care for. We have yet to learn how to get the best from older employees in the workforce, overlooking their experience and institutional memory in favor of technological expertise. Older people are under-represented in medical clinical trials. In fact, data collection about older persons lags across the world, so we don’t have enough research to suggest evidence-based solutions and approaches to improve not only elders’ health care and economic welfare, but to create opportunies for them to fully participate in their societies. Even in social services, elder abuse is only beginning to get the attention given to domestic abuse.”
If the economy continues to falter, age discrimination will be emboldened, Jack believes. “The idea of a fair share for seniors will go on a back burner. It’s been a battle to get senior housing, and that push will weaken. There will be retrenchment and competition for resources, so retirees who use their expertise as consultants in a gig economy won’t have a chance. There will be cutbacks in senior services.”
I asked Jack how we fight ageism. “By re-envisioning the relationship between the generations and creating partnerships,” he answered, “and by seniors themselves not yielding to marginalization and invisibility. Our Senior Strong NYC Campaign is a good example of how to stand up to invisibity. Especially in these times, it’s critical that every older person has the resources to ensure health, love, security, dignity and rights. Living your best life, even when shut-in, is the best antidote to ageism.” The campaign (@SeniorStrongNYC) is on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn.