ELDER ABUSE: Studies show ageism is endemic in our society.
ELDER ABUSE: Studies show ageism is endemic in our society.

Fighting back against the discrimination of ageism

AGEISM can be defined as a process of stereotyping and discriminating against a person or people, simply because they are older.

Ageism is endemic in our society. Older people often feel patronised or "invisible" and can find it much harder to get or maintain a job, access healthcare, services or housing, or enjoy any manner of things our community has to offer because of how their age is judged.

With Australia's - and the global - population getting older, ageism is a serious human rights issue for us all. Elder abuse is one of the worst manifestations of ageism. Elder abuse is defined as any act which causes harm to an older person and is carried out by someone in a position of trust - most often a family member.

The abuse may be physical, social, financial, psychological or sexual and can include mistreatment and neglect. While elder abuse is vastly under-reported, the World Health Organisation estimates up to 10% of older people worldwide experience it.

There are some notional protections for older people in Australia. The Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 sets out basic human rights, for example, and the Federal Age Discrimination Act 2004 protects individuals from discrimination on the basis of age in many areas of public life, including employment, education, accommodation and the provision of goods and services.

There are also some laws and services in place that can respond to elder abuse. However, in practice, the laws are not strongly implemented, do not tackle all forms of age discrimination and do not directly address the ageist attitudes and stereotypes - including those in the media - which underpin so many hurtful actions every day.

Some common stereotypes about older people are that they:

* Can't look after themselves.

* Are slow and unable of learning new things.

* Don't know what's best for them.

* Need to be protected.

* Lack intellectual and physical capacity.

* Aren't sexual.

* A burden on society.

Stereotypes such as these fail to recognise the rights, needs, dignity and valuable contribution of older people in our community, and translate into ageist actions. For example, although older people have made decisions all their adult lives, they might suddenly find themselves being told they can no longer do what they want.

Even when older people do have additional needs, the way those needs are met should be respectful of their rights as human beings. Derogatory attitudes towards older people are patronising and disrespectful.

They can interfere with basic human rights, such as their right to freedom of movement and association; their right not to have their wishes and decisions ignored or overridden; their right to privacy, and, not least, their right to dignity.

Experiences of ageism often affect older people's mental and physical well-being and therefore their quality of life.

It is important to understand that older people are as diverse a group as any other, with a great deal to contribute to society - lived experience and reflective wisdom, for example, usually come with age. Older people contribute more volunteer hours than any other group and are absolutely vital to the Australian economy as carers, employers, employees, producers and consumers.

Like racism and sexism, ageism needs to be addressed within a human rights framework, including via a United Nations Convention on the Rights of Older People that would provide a definitive, universal statement that age discrimination is morally and legally unacceptable, and support basic protections for older people worldwide.

People also need to be educated about older people's human rights at a community level. To truly combat ageism, however, change has to happen at an individual level: we all need to question our own attitudes and behaviour.

After all, we will all be older one day.

(Source: COTA Victoria.)

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