unthinking ageism workplace

How can Businesses Avoid the Trap of Unthinking Ageism?  

This week’s blog is a guest post from blogger Grandma Joyce Williams, who writes a whole host of different articles on ageing and ageism, to reveal just how great later life can be. In this piece, Joyce puts forward several ways in which businesses can become more age friendly by avoiding the trap of unthinking ageism. You can read more from Joyce on her blog.

It is so easy for a business or organisation to be unconscious of its own stereotypes about ageing – the media certainly reinforces them! But what scenarios can occur when a business allows unthinking ageism to come to the fore? That sinking moment when the media gleefully spots you have used the word “they” when referring to older people in an advert? Or the slow realisation that your customer base no longer reflects the real market? Soon it dawns on you that your business is missing, or being shunned, by a growing market sector – or worse still, failing to reach them! And then come the consequences: a market is lost and perhaps, quite unwittingly, the business is deemed to be ageist.

To be Age Friendly requires work, even a positive mind shift to accepting – even liking – the idea of old age. And that is not always easy to do in today’s youth centred world it it? However, it must be done!

That the majority of us will live to well over 80 is the future. Already we over 65s are the growth area – there are millions and millions of us! Businesses and many service organisations are having to adjust to this change.

But we are a new population type. Older people in these great numbers, still in good health, have not existed before. We are creating a fresh market, a new challenge, one that is not yet understood. How can it be? Having achieved this extended active later life, these bonus years, we have created a world that is new for all. Those of us already exploring that world have been happily surprised  by how enjoyable a time it is. Certainly not the doom image painted by the media. But it is different – much that you took for granted no longer operates in the same way. Small new problems appear that you hadn’t realised would be there. And, you discover, it isn’t just you, many businesses and organisations have no map for this world, so they cant help either. Again, how could they have? Few travellers have as yet wandered this fresh landscape and reported back.

unthinking ageism
Older age isn’t the gloomy time the media makes it out to be – it’s just different!

So, after 20 years or so out there, what is there to report back? How can those of us who have been there help?  What do you need to know? How can we communicate? Can we develop a useful shared understanding? Most of all, can we change the doom-laden useless stereotype we are all saddled with? Here are some ideas for you to think on:

Walk a Mile in our Shoes!

Can we begin with the perception of old age? You, your staff and your whole organisation will need to imagine something you haven’t yet experienced. Though you will…

It is really hard to understand what it is like to be old until you have tried it. Let me assure you, you are still you, the person who was  six, sixteen and sixty. If you were cheerful, interested in life, fun to be with, you still are. Yet your body is different. You know it, and the world sees it. But to all our surprise, most of us don’t really care. We have stopped worrying about it. Just get on and live in it. A very refreshing feeling it is too. Until, that is, we see it used as a threat to be avoided or linked unthinkingly to senility or incompetence. Not true!

You know though that now you are old, you think differently.  Maybe a result of years of experience, coping, surviving? Whatever, you slowly acquire a calm acceptance and see more clearly the longer scale cycles of life.

Suggestion: That you get all your team to think personally and constructively about their own later years. i.e., own, imagine and accept age as an ordinary, but interestingly different, part of a successful life. And not as something to dread. Perhaps something to be rather proud of?

Discover all that Later Life has to Offer!

The current picture of old age is wrong – it is normal human life span extended, not a downward slide! It is a slope which is manageable for many years and increasingly to beyond 80+ Then, yes, maybe a faster drop often related to illness. Rust of course, but we just take the pills, do the exercises and get on with living.

Therefore it seems we need to extend our thinking about how long normal active life is.

Suggestion: Get all your team to go out and about and look for people with grey hair. You will of course need to go in the week, in the day time to really see. We are free aren’t we?

What are they doing? I suspect you will be really surprised. Walking the hills, yoga, dance classes, travelling, childminding, cycling, gardening, swimming, choir, bridge, bingo, key visitors to places of interest, birdwatching or walking the dog. And thousands volunteering or caring.  All of us say we are busier than ever! And take a special look at their sex lives… yes!  You will see more couples holding hands at over 70 than at any other stage of life. Marriages and new partners are common!

Get the actual facts and the numbers about old age and then put all of that into your marketing and organisational thinking.

unthinking ageism
We can get up to all sorts of fun activities in later life!

Thinking Physically

Now to Problems: We do develop problems and we need you to recognise them. Four in particular matter and your understanding would help enormously. They are Hearing, Eyesight, Balance and Strength.

Hearing and Noise is a major one. We arent being awkward when we ask for the music to be turned off. We all loose high frequency hearing and the majority probably have to use hearing aids. They magnify the high pitched sounds very unpleasantly indeed, actually painfully.  So when people put their nose into your shop or restaurant and then back out, you might like to think about doing something about your decor, its acoustic effect and your policy on music. Nowadays, not to do so is definitely seen as Age Unfriendly.

Distances, plus a lack of enough suitable seats and handrails is a put off in so many places. Bad in stations, museums, galleries, but worse in large stores. Rusty knees need resting spots. Chairs please. And the strength needed for today’s packaging! It is a nightmare and has to be made more Age Friendly. I shouldn’t have to carry a screwdriver around to open my sandwiches when out walking…

Balance is a subtle one. It deteriorates slowly, but catches us unaware. Steps and walking surfaces are the main source of problems.

Lastly eyesight. We all need glasses or cataract ops. Result, reading distance and size is crucial. Are you listening Museums? Signs in glass cases 3 ft away don’t work! And please not white on grey lettering. Elegant yes. Readable no. And enough light to read a menu?

Suggestion: All this for your design teams please. Don’t guess for us. Test. Try everything on a group of us. Maybe we should be handing out Age Friendly badges?

Keep an eye on your Words!

Above all, watch the words. It’s so easy to slip into patronising mode, albeit meant kindly. The ‘We must care for our old people, they need…” tone.  So divisive and exclusive…Try “All of us, once over 70 will need…”. Maybe the key message for your organisation is for all of you to stop worrying about getting old, just understand it. Challenge the stereotype. Talk with us, use our experience. It’s your future too. Plan on it!

Be reassured that at 60 – 75 you don’t and won’t see yourself as any different. Certainly not old. But you will begin to recognise emerging problems which you hope  business will have considered.

I tend to feel rather  angry when it is clear that an issue hasn’t been recognised or if it is dealt with in any patronising way. However kindly meant there is an unpleasant feeling of being demeaned.  For example, I expect all hotels to automatically have safe showers with grab rails and non slip floors. I don’t expect to have to plead for a disabled room just because I am old! After 75 most people are rather pleased about being old; beginning to be rather proud to have got there. No problem at all if you would like to use words, like ‘successful’ about us!

I hope you make it too, it’s a special and happy time of life.

In other words, unthinking ageism is not a problem once you grasp that life in that new land is just a special and bonus continuation of yours!

If you’re a London-based business looking to become more age friendly, then our FREE Age Allies workshop has you covered! Find out more here.

Joyce Williams

...also known as Grandma Williams. I've travelled the world, written books, been a Physio & TV Presenter. Now I'm 80+ and I'm blogging about the fun and nonsense of being ancient in a modern world and experiencing everyday ageism in all its glory!

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