Yes, Older People Can Be Stigmatized too!

Prejudice and negative stereotypes play a major role in the violence, abuse and neglect of older people

Older lady

As people age, they often experience stigma and discrimination related to growing older; in addition, they are frequently described as actual or potential burdens on their families or on society as a whole  – Photo by Mario Heller on Unsplash –  Top image: adapted from photo by Danie Franco on Unsplash

By the Editorial team – On 15 June, World Elder Abuse Awareness Day highlighted the disproportionate impact of natural disasters, conflicts and pandemics on older people.

Many older people face multiple vulnerabilities including mobility problems, chronic health conditions and social isolation. During armed conflicts or natural disasters, these factors are likely to affect their ability to seek help or medical care in a timely manner. The stress and chaos associated with these emergencies can also increase the risk of abuse.

Abuse and discrimination against older people

Mistreatment or differential treatment on the basis of age does not only occur during conflicts or disasters of all kinds. Violence against older people is already widespread around the world. But as the world’s population ages – it is estimated that one in six people will be 65 or older by 2050 – these situations of violence will only worsen, especially in countries with the fastest ageing populations.

But what is elder abuse? According to the WHO definition, it is “a single or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust which causes harm or distress to an older person”. Such acts include physical, sexual, psychological and emotional abuse; material and financial abuse; abandonment; neglect; and serious loss of dignity and respect. Lastly, the act in question may be active or passive, committed by individuals, institutions or society itself.

However, the WHO definition may not cover all aspects of elder abuse in its broader sense. Defining abuse solely in terms of a relationship of trust, or expected trust,  with an older person excludes abuse of all kinds perpetrated by strangers. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many people spoke disparagingly of older people as “the only ones who should be confined to their homes”, not to mention the infamous “boomer remover” hashtag, as well as the institutional abuse perpetrated against older people as a result of their isolation in poorly funded geriatric institutions, where they would often die in sheer loneliness, far from their families. It all has a name: ageism.

Ageism, the main cause of elder abuse and prejudice

Stereotypes and prejudices can also lead to violence, abuse and neglect of older people. One of the causes of these stereotypes is ageism. According to a report by the Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons (2023), ageism is a major risk factor for elder abuse.

But what is ageism? Ageism is to age what racism is to “race”. Ageism refers to stereotyping, negative prejudice, stigmatization and discriminatory practices against people because of their age. Ageism affects young and old alike, but can be particularly harmful to the latter. The stereotypes and prejudices associated with ageism can not only lead to the situations we have seen, but they can also be internalized by older people, generating problems of anxiety and stress that lead to a loss of self-confidence and a reduced quality of life. Finally, they limit older people’s ability to access appropriate care and support services, particularly in the field of addiction.

It should also be stressed that the intersection of age and other factors of discrimination increases the risk of older people becoming victims of abuse.

Stereotypes and prejudices, in particular those related to gender, ethnicity, migration status, disability or gender identity, multiply the obstacles for those who already face difficulties in accessing essential services.

Addictions among older people

While the use of illicit drugs tends to decline with age, addictions are a reality among older people, although they often take different forms from those of younger people. However, these problems are often invisible among older people and very few addiction services are specifically designed for them.

With the development of age-related chronic diseases, older people are prescribed more drugs than other age groups, resulting in greater exposure to potentially addictive drugs. For example, the use of opioids for persistent pain is higher in older people than in other age groups (in the United States, opioid prescriptions for this population increased nine fold between 1995 and 2010). There is also a clear over-medicalization of this population, particularly among women over the age of 65.

Towards an inclusive society

Ageism permeates Western culture, and prejudices, stereotypes and misconceptions about older people are widespread, including the infantilizing view many people have of the oldest among us. There is also a paradox: while the ageing society is often portrayed in political discourse as an economic burden or even an existential threat, older people are rarely heard and usually not seen for what they are: agents of change and social progress.

It’s time for a paradigm shift. Older people are not a burden on society. On the contrary, they are invaluable members of society. They are a source of experience, wisdom and intergenerational transmission; they contribute to the vitality of the economy and the quality of family ties. Let’s commit ourselves to building an inclusive society, for all and for all ages!