An Answer to Age Discrimination: Making for Older Persons What We Would Like for Ourselves

September 30, 2016

During my first few months working in the Aging and Development Research Program at the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC), I was sometimes approached by colleagues (now thankfully, friends) with questions on what aging was all about and what exactly we were doing in the program. I find some of them amusing in retrospect:

“Are you manufacturing anti-aging products?”

“Teach us how not to grow old!”

“What were you people thinking to use ‘aging’ and ‘development’ in the same sentence?”

I couldn’t help but recoil at the harsher sentiments, about the wonder expressed by some as to what, if anything, might be gained from studying a population that would soon die.

Misconceptions about older people persist the world over. Many still hold the opinion that old age is something to be avoided, as it is inevitably accompanied by declines in health, in socioeconomic status, and in intellect. They think such deterioration is irreversible and, worse, that it applies to ALL older people. Older people too often draw negative perceptions, that they are too conservative, are sick, weak, smelly, clueless, needy…

So, why do these negative perceptions about older people persist?

One reason might be that most of us know few and interact infrequently with older people, leading us to form collective myths around old age and the experiences of older persons. Perhaps only a few of us ever pause to reflect on how linked our lives really are, how these connections – tangible and intangible- integrate older and younger generations.

No matter the basis of these negative perceptions, they form the basis of ageism, or discrimination and prejudice against a person or group simply because of their age. It is a harmful and regressive bias that has no place in modern society.

We know better than to let ignorance dictate our judgment and actions. The remedy lies within us. Each individual needs to take a look on the inside and question the root cause(s) perpetuating the negative attitudes we form around older people but also weigh their possible impacts.

To mark the observance of the International Day of Older Persons on October 1, campaigners, researchers and partners are calling for us to ‘Take a Stand against Ageism’. Collectively, we as Africans would do well to keep with the long and rich cultural tradition of valuing and respecting our elders. Recalling tradition is one way to remind ourselves of the many positive attributes older members bring to their families and communities across the continent.

The possibility that many of us will join the older population group should be motivation enough.   Already there are about 64 million people aged 60 years and over in the continent, and – owing to its large youth bulge – the number is projected to rise more than three-fold to 212 million by 2050. In this scenario, many of us Africans will live to see our great- grandchildren, will have our families and friends around for longer, and will have contributed to – and survived through – what may be one of the most advanced and innovative times in human history. How much better for us all if our twilight years could be free of discrimination to enhance our potential and continue our contributions to social, economic, cultural and political life.

We will, and we can. Fortunately, there are many promising signals pointing the way. At global level, eight out of the 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) explicitly urge countries to include people of all ages in development initiatives. Tackling ageism is one way of opening up opportunities for ensuring full integration of older persons in society. Another opportunity is the recently ratified African Union (AU) Protocol on the Rights of Older Persons, which outlines ways for governments to protect the rights of older citizens. The AU Protocol covers a range of rights including access to health services, the right to support and care, the right to social protection and education and, critically, freedom from discrimination.

If approached in concert and sustained over time, measures to address ageism hold great promise for current and future cohorts of older Africans to enjoy dignified lives in which they fully contribute to the development of Africa.  Let us each make a personal commitment to counteract ageism wherever we meet it and to appreciate the essence of the aging process and its fruit: old age.