The state of Maine wants to end ageism in a decade. Really.
In a move to improve the health of Maine’s 1.3 million residents, reduce workforce struggles and improve the economy, the Maine Council on Aging said it launched an initiative to end ageism within 10 years.
Ageism refers to the stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination directed toward people based on their age — no matter what their age might be. It can be institutional, interpersonal or even self-directed. Globally, one in two people are ageist against older people, according to a United Nations report.
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It’s also the right thing to do, the council said.
“Americans don’t believe ageism is real. Or that it’s not as bad as the other ‘isms’,” said Jess Maurer, executive director of the Maine Council on Aging. “But it costs us a lot financially. It costs us emotionally. It taxes our health systems. It affects housing. It affects our workforce. It costs us a lot.”
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The Maine Council on Aging set a goal to eliminate ageism in the workplace, in the media, and other leading segments of Maine culture by 2032, in part, through targeted discussions with different business sectors, community leaders, and policy makers. Maine has the oldest population in the U.S.
Eradicating ageism is also important for the health of the economy. A study from AARP found that the lost economic activity from older Americans not being able to find work, change careers, or earn promotions because of age discrimination cost the U.S. economy $850 billion in lost gross domestic product in 2018. In the long-term, age discrimination could cost the U.S. more than $3.9 trillion in 2050, AARP found.
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Meanwhile, a Yale University study found that discrimination based on age increased healthcare costs by $63 billion annually.
The Maine Council on Aging isn’t alone. Last year, the World Health Organization announced a global campaign to combat ageism with strategies such as educating people about ageism, fostering intergenerational contacts, and changing policies and laws to promote age equity.
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Maurer said the pandemic highlighted society’s prejudice against older people. Seniors with comorbidities were more vulnerable and died in increasing numbers from COVID-19 than younger, healthier people.
“COVID hit us over the head with a two-by-four. ‘Older lives do not have the same value as younger lives.’ People were willing to say that out loud. We knew we had to do something,” said Maurer.
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“We’re all ageists and we will all be victims of ageism. Every last one of us,” Maurer said. “The irony is that when you talk to people, 90% of them get it — that denigrating getting older is ultimately about them. Stop pretending it’s somebody else. You’re experiencing aging right now. Otherwise, you’re dead.”
Last year, the council launched a program called the Leadership Exchange on Ageism to help Maine business and community leaders fight ageism. So far, 60 people have gone through the program and the council secured funding for an additional 40 participants, as well a chance to replicate the program in other states.
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A similar effort has started in Australia, where more than 20 high-profile organizations and individuals formed a coalition to help fight ageism and age discrimination called EveryAGE Counts.
In Colorado, a different approach, called Changing the Narrative, has been used; it has raised awareness about ageism through workshops educating the public about ageist language, beliefs and practices. It also launched a campaign calling attention to ageism in healthcare and the workplace, and pushed for age-friendly policy initiatives and pop culture changes.
How will Maine actually wipe out ageism?
“We’re going to change hearts and minds one at a time. It’s a top-down, bottom-up and everyone in the middle approach,” Maurer said. “We’re going to start with the early adopters. You don’t start with the people who are skeptical. You start where you can.”
One metric the Maine Council on Aging will track is the number of people over 65 who are in the workforce. Another metric will follow the number of healthcare institutions, from primary care practices up to hospitals, that implement the Age Friendly Healthy System program supported by the John A. Hartford Foundation and others.
The council also will push for a reduction in age-based stereotypes and language in reporting after an intervention with local media, as well as track the investment that the state of Maine makes financially in infrastructure that supports healthy aging. Other efforts will focus on giving older people an opportunity to make decisions on how public money is spent to develop affordable housing for older people.
“It’s a lofty goal. Whenever we put our minds to tackling something as big as an ‘ism’ — it’s admirable. Addressing ageism is going to take a movement like this,” Tracey Gendron, chair for the Virginia Commonwealth University’s department of gerontology and executive director for the Virginia Center on Aging. “I do think this will make a difference. They’re putting action behind their words.”
Gendron likened the Maine campaign to other public health efforts such as getting people to wear seat belts, use sunscreen or stop smoking.
“People don’t understand the consequences of ageism and this will help,” Gendron said. “It’s important for anyone to take the lead. What Maine is doing is creating a playbook that can be replicated. Here’s what we’re doing, here’s what we’re reading. This is the training we’re doing. Here’s the steps we’re taking. So it can be replicated in other states.”
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Janine Vanderburg, director and chief catalyst at Changing the Narrative in Colorado, said she believes Maine’s efforts can make a difference and help eradicate ageism.
“We don’t wave a magic wand and ageism disappears. But goals are important. The more we’re all spreading these ideas around, the more work gets done,” Vanderburg said.
Maurer admits that the amount of change needed will be tough to manage.
“Ageism is going to impact everyone and it’s uniformly bad. If we do nothing—this suffering is coming to a theater near you,” Maurer said. “Change is hard. Humans only change things when things don’t work. The next 10 to 20 years is going to involve a lot of change, and it’s going to be hard.”