Report on the Senior College Colloquium on Ageism – March 23, 2017

March 23, 2017, 2:00 -4:00 pm
Senior College Centre, Committee Room
Thirteen participants, including moderator John David Stewart and reporter Mary Finlay.

Background, readings and discussion questions prepared by John David Stewart.

Background and readings

Origin of the term “ageism”: Dr. Robert Butler, a prominent gerontologist, psychiatrist and the founding director of the NIH (US), the National Institute on Aging, 1976-1982 is credited with coining the term “Ageism” to describe the discrimination experienced by older people. His book “Why Survive? Being old in America” won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1976, and contains Dr. Butler’s prescription for change. He wrote tirelessly about the everyday problems of older adults in America. In 1982 he became the Chair of the newly formed Department of Geriatrics at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, and in 1990 founded the International Centre for Longevity.

Ashton Applewhite, who has been recognized by the New York Times, National Public Radio and others as an expert on ageism, has been included in a list of the world’s 100 inspiring women along with Naomi Klein et al. She was mentored by Dr. Robert Butler.

The Toronto Public Library data base shows 48 references for “Ageism”.

“Ageism: Stereotyping and Prejudice Against Older Persons” by Todd D. Nelson, (MIT press, 2002) is available in Robarts and elsewhere in the U of T library system.

Review of Ashton Applewhite’s “This Chair Rocks”:
Genesis 17: 1-23
Preface from “This Chair Rocks”

Points to ponder for discussion

(1) Along with race and gender people commonly use age to categorize and form stereotypes about other, of the three categories, age is the only one in which the members of the stereotyping group, the young, will eventually join the out-group, the old.

(2) It is said that Ageism is especially prevalent in the US where the entrenched perception of growing older is strongly associated with depressions, fear, and anxiety.

(3) Who or what created Ageism?

(4) When was it created?

(5) What factors/forces created it?

(6) Who or what gained by its creation?

(7) Did the concept of “retirement” at 65 have a role?

(8) What was the mechanism of its creation and what are the mechanics of its maintenance and propagation?


The discussion began with a reference to the biblical book of Genesis and the advanced age of Abraham and Sarah when they were entrusted with the task of nation-founding. Clearly no ageism on God’s part. So we fast-forwarded to Robert Butler and the coining of the term “ageism” in 1976. Why ageism, and why now?

The first answer was the increased number of elderly, and their hold on scarce resources. This was elaborated on at several points in the discussion. Seniority determines such things as inheritance and job security. Increased longevity means that assets are not passed down until the next generation is well into mid-life. Older scientists receive a disproportionate share of grant money, while often increasingly disengaged from actual research. In fields without a forced retirement age, older people remain in positions that would otherwise be filled by younger people trying to get a foot on the career ladder. Adaptations of public infrastructure to make it age-friendly are expensive. Medical care for the elderly uses up tax dollars that could be spent more productively elsewhere. Pensions and other forms of support for the non-working elderly are based on out-dated actuarial assumptions and may thus not be available for the next generation of retirees.

In contrast to these points, which could be summarised as expressions of envy, another answer was that young people feared the elderly, as reminders that youth, beauty, and productivity would eventually be replaced by age, decay, and death. There was an attempt to blame Hollywood for an over-emphasis on ageist criteria of attractiveness such as smooth skin, firm limbs, and a full head of not-grey hair. This led to a side-bar on the different standards by which men and women were judged. It was noted that the adjective “distinguished” was never applied to women. In any event, there is a lot of money being made selling skin cream, hair dye, plastic surgery, and Spanx, and not just to women. But it was pointed out that from an evolutionary perspective signs of ageing are adaptive, telling a prospective partner that this person is not the best choice from a reproductive standpoint. The consensus was that we personally did not care about that and thought that we looked pretty good. But for those anxious to present themselves as productive and employable the physical appearance of youth is a must.

The discussion then turned to brain function, an invisible aspect of ageing. Many societies reputedly value or previously valued the elderly for their wisdom. Is this appropriate? It was pointed out that in First Nations communities the designation of “Elder” did not necessarily imply greater age, just greater knowledge and insight. Among academics, the first twenty years of study are generally a time of immersion, followed by twenty years of refining and focusing. Many thinkers and artists have a “late period” of special insight and creativity. Others demonstrate a perceptible falling-off. It was noted that the male brain is more lateralised than the female brain, because of testosterone, and as this declines the brain becomes more “balanced.” Brain function declines inevitably, although at different rates in different people. While it is frustrating to have others assume that because one is an older adult one has mental and physical limitations, it is undeniable that statistically these assumptions are accurate. But using this prospect of inevitable decline as a reason to remove people arbitrarily from the productive sphere is a mistake, one which often has fatal consequences for them, not to mention depriving society of what they still have to contribute.

Throughout the discussion instances of “the inescapable lousiness of growing old” were noted, but the discussion concluded on a note of satisfaction that we were Not Dead Yet.