The Idea of Ageing and How Ageism Works

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“The idea of ageing as a burden on society stigmatizes older people as well as the services they receive, both of which become devalued and associated with negative dependency”. +This essay seeks to explore the extent to which people of different age groups experience conditions of social exclusion. It begins with an overview of the concept of ‘social exclusion’. It then moves on to describe how older adults are more vulnerable to social exclusion as a result of age-related changes including greater risk of physical limitations, loss of autonomy and changing socio-economic factors. These age-related changes influence access to basic services and social relations. It also explores how ageism works to hinder older people from certain benefits and how social developments such as digitalisation can influence the likelihood of older people’s social exclusion. 

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The last two decades have witnessed the development of a better understanding of the concept of ‘social exclusion’. It has been described as a complex process through which individuals become disconnected from mainstream society thus, depriving said individuals of the rights, resources and services available to the majority. There are various drivers of social exclusion including poverty, low levels of educational attainment, ill health, unemployment, and much more, all of which can have long-lasting effects. The hardships of old age are usually attributed to biological ageing, which is described as the process by which the body’s adaptive mechanisms are impaired thus adding to the frequency of diseases and disabilities with age. However, it has been argued that the process of ageing is not solely genetic, but is also influenced by environmental and social factors.

 Age, is socially constructed by broader views surrounding ageing and economic exclusion such as enforced retirement from the labour market. This means that many of the experiences of the older population have fairly little to do with biological ageing. Older people who have to deal with chronic illness or disability often find that their quality of life is greatly dependent on a wide range of extrinsic, environmental, economic and social factors. It is important to ask questions about how society views ageing especially in light of its implications for social policy. The assumptions that ‘the elderly’ are a social problem or even a liability are questionable. According to the NHS, anyone over the age of sixty-five might be considered an older person. The most recent UK statistics reveal that in 2016, 18% of the population was aged sixty-five and over while 2.4% were aged eighty-five and over.

 People aged sixty-five to eighty-four are usually referred to was the ‘younger old’ in academic literature whilst people aged eighty-five and over are commonly referred to as the ‘oldest old’. In 2016, 18.9% of the population were aged 0 -15 years and the percentage of people aged 16-64 years, which is often described, as the ‘working age’ was 63.1%. It has been predicted that by 2046, the percentage of those aged 65 and over would have increased to 24.7% while the percentage of the population in the ‘working age’ would reduce to 57.7%. This predicted increase in the percentage of older people within the UK makes it increasingly important for the government and society to shift attitudes and perspectives about the ageing population and find ways to create a more inclusive society for individuals as they grow older. Ill health is often cited, as one of the more prominent reasons behind the social exclusion of older people. Deteriorating control over decision-making and increased reliance on others is common amongst the older population. 

Losses in physical capacity tend to occur as people age and this is associated with reduced independence. If a person is physically able to participate in interests and social activities, this can contribute to the positive feeling of being unhindered in life. Evidence from the first wave of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing reveals that at the time, one-fifth of older people who report having poor health are excluded from social relationships compared to less than one-tenth of those with excellent health. A parallel pattern can also be noticed amongst individuals who are excluded from civic and cultural activities and those who experience neighbourhood exclusion. At this point in the discussion, one must now turn to the ways in which the older population are excluded form certain societal benefits. Firstly, the older generation are actively excluded from society through their inability to access basic services and facilities. These include; financial services such as banks, cash points and post offices; health services such as general practitioners, hospitals and dentists and provision suppliers such as local shops and supermarkets. It has been argued that this form of exclusion stems from a lack of access to adequate public and private transport. Inability to use public and private transport is an important cause of social exclusion and exacerbates reduced access to other basic services. Following on from the above paragraph, reduced mobility due to deteriorating health serves as one of the reasons why older people are less able to access basic services and facilities. 

Health problems and other disabilities can force older people to reduce or stop their driving and use of public transport, thus making it harder to access service provision. Older people are more likely to distinguish between ‘essential’ and ‘discretionary’ travel, an example of the former being medical appointments. They then focus their attention and opportunity to travel on the former and reduce what they perceive to be ‘discretionary’ travel. Research also shows that people aged eighty-five and over have lower levels of access to car transport and public transport than those aged sixty-five to eighty four. This proves that although the ‘younger old’ have had the privilege to age with cars, they are more likely to lose such access when they reach their eighties as a result of physiological decline or heightened financial difficulty. Furthermore, the older population are more vulnerable to exclusion from social relations as a result of their age. As one ages support systems tend to decrease.

 People aged eighty-five and over are less likely to have weekly contact with friends and family, they also face a higher risk of isolation and loneliness than people aged sixty-five to eight-four. There is a steady connection between the physical health and the extent of social interactions amongst older people. For instance, older adults with severe medical problems coupled with physical limitations cannot continue to live independently and often move in with children or stay in residential homes.It has been argued that the risk of exclusion from social interactions can be attributed to declining health amongst older people. However, studies show that even when health is taken into account those aged eight five and over are still at greater risk of reduced social interaction than other age groups. Theoretically, this may be because those in the ‘oldest old’ category have outlived their peers and therefore have diminished social networks. Another explanation is that they may suffer this social exclusion as a result of socio-economic factors relating to wealth and income.Furthermore, it is important to acknowledge how ‘ageism’ may hinder different age groups from enjoying certain benefits and opportunities. This concept can be broadly defined as prejudice or discrimination targeted at people because of their age. Conceptually, it has been suggested that ageism manifests in various forms. These include, negative attitudes towards older people and the process of aging; discriminating against or treating older people unfairly; and endorsing policies and practices that fortify negative stereotypes of older people..

 The imbedded association between “old” and “bad” is approved by both younger and older adults and encourages younger generations to see older people as different from themselves.Experiencing ageism serves to remind older adults that society now views them as “old” and less capable thus highlighting that there are social barriers linked with age that may influence their future opportunities.  One of the prominent adverse effects of ageism is its ability to limit the employment opportunities and career progression of older people. Most stereotypes against older workers are related to their lower performance, lower ability to learn, resistance to change and general assumption that physical and cognitive functioning declines with age. Older adults have often reported that there are fewer opportunities accessible for them to pursue prior to retirement. For example, 88-year-old Eileen Jolly recently became the oldest person to sue an employer for age discrimination after being sacked from her job as an NHS secretary because of her age and disabilities. It has been argued that ageism is not exclusive to older people and individuals can experience ageism at any age. This is reflected in the experience of 42-year-old Achim Beck who successfully sued his employer for terminating his employment because the company wanted a younger person to perform his role. Lastly, increasing digitalization and the use of the Internet has been cited as a way of empowerment for older adults and a way of compensation for exclusion in other areas such as social relations. However, the fact that access to information and services is shifting to exclusively digital access could act as a barrier to older peoples involvement in society. Institutions such as the government, the NHS and private industries meeting the needs of older adults are increasingly putting much of their consumer activities online and increasing their use of virtual technology to save costs. Research shows that Internet use is negatively related to age.

 Meaning that the proportion of Internet users is smaller in older populations than in younger populations In the UK, of the 4.5 million adults who had never used the Internet in 2018, more than half were aged seventy-five years and over. Additionally, lapsed Internet use by adults aged seventy-five years and over rose from 3.9% in 2011 to 7.3% in 2017.The existence of this digital divide can be attributed to a number of factors hindering digital literacy amongst the older population. Firstly, negative attitudes towards technology, including perceived apprehension and complexity of the language used have adverse influences on older people’s patterns of Internet use.  Another disincentive to engage with technology, particularly the Internet, is the fear associated with breaches of security and access to personal data. Additionally, it has been proven that those aged seventy-five and over often consider themselves ‘too old’ for the Internet and see no point in engaging with it or increasing their digital literacy. A combination of these various reasons to disengage with technology means that the older population is unable to benefit from the wide range of opportunities presented by digitalization such as the possibilities of increased interaction through social media such as Skype and the convenience of carrying out everyday transactions online. In sum, it is important to acknowledge that dominant ageist values impact upon the experiences and opportunities of older people. 

Some of the methods by which older people are excluded from society are through reduced social interactions with family and friends, reduced access to basic services and facilities as a result of an inability to make use of private and public transport, experiences of ageism restricting career opportunities and a lack of digital literacy in an increasingly technological world. It is also evident from the above discussion that although everyone over the age of sixty-five is seen as ‘old’, the extent to which different age groups experience social exclusion is differs, with those aged eighty-five and over experiencing exclusion on a larger scale than those aged sixty-five to eighty-four.

 The experiences of the older population reflect the pressing need for government intervention to ensure that vulnerable citizens aged sixty-five and above are able to participate fully in social life both within and beyond their immediate neighbourhoods. 

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