Ageism – the ‘acceptable’ face of prejudice


Social workers are supposed to be a liberal group. We are trained extensively in anti-discriminatory practice. I can’t imagine there are any social work courses in the country that don’t, at least explore, the implications of discrimination, power and oppression even at the interview level.

So it is particularly upsetting and distressing to see colleagues behave, speak or act in a way that seems contrary to those values that not only were emphasised throughout training and practice but that also carry through to every facet of life.

We know that one of the fundamental foundations on which social work is based is that of combating oppressive practice and prejudices – so what to do when it is people and organisations you live and work in that are so prejudicial?

I was confronted with this towards the end of last week. I still  have some anger – but the anger has changed from writing letters and shooting ’emails of indignation’ off in my head, to a more rational, ‘what can I do about this’ process. Time, although not as good a healer as it is given credit for, can produce some more rationality!

Basically, the prejudice in question was ageism. It seems that our society is a lot more tolerant of ageism than other prejudices that are slowly, at least on an organisational level, easing out of the picture. But ageism is alive and kicking – and in some cases kicking very hard.

The particular incident that annoyed me was the result of some casual comments which I followed up and found out that there were some changes ‘in the works’ which I seemed to regard older people as a separate entity to ‘adult’ services – and the people who work with some of the other departments are very anxious to divest themselves of all responsibility to older people because they are being presented as ‘different’ – but this was just one incident among many that I have encountered. From other teams who don’t work within Older People’s Services, from hospital wards, from GPs, from Commissioners within Social Services and most disappointingly from other Social Workers.

A lot of the work of CMHTs (Community Mental Health Teams) seem to relate to risk and somehow the impression that I was getting was that risk to self is somehow less ‘cutting edge’ than risk to others. I can see how that can be much more obvious but the role is of looking at best interests and risk to self can be as damaging. The implication that older people do not have the same levels of risk to self or that the self in question has less value due to the age is something that has been making me increasingly angry and indignant.

I know that the majority of the work that I undertake is with people who have dementia but people over 65 do not and should not suddenly lose the right to an equality of service and opportunities, just because they are over 65.

The Independent writes about the growing implications for dementia for with an ageing population.

Help the Aged conducted some research which presented (what a surprise) that the NHS claiming

“The Department of Health has acknowledged that there are deep-rooted negative attitudes and behaviours towards older people and these are at the heart of failure to provide decent services for them.”

The poverty, poor care, paucity of resources and lack of public funding experienced by older people in the UK would not be tolerated by any other section of society without people generally raising arms in a sea of disgust and outrage.

Even today The Guardian has a leader about ageism within the National Health Service and working within the system, I see it very clearly and try to rage against it as far as I can  but I have my work cut out and it’s frustrating and upsetting.

So why has it been possible to maintain an oppressive attitude to older people?

Why isn’t there as much emotion and outrage when an older, vulnerable adult is abused?

Are stories about older people dying (through neglect) in institutional settings or in their own homes not even reaching the front page of their local papers – let alone instigating national outrage and soul-searching which might lead to more changes in policy and quickly?

I think when the stories are presented, people are disgusted and outraged but not to be same levels – adults can look after themselves, perhaps, people assume. Or they have families, friends, people to advocate for them where often they don’t.

For me, I am asked (as I am occasionally and was frequently when I was on Post Qualifying Training) why I work with Older Adults or whether I find it ‘depressing’

No, I don’t and partly it’s because I believe there is so much to be done in this area.

It has the opportunity to be the most dynamic area of social work because there is so much to catch up on and I don’t know if I can speak in concrete terms but at the moment, there is no other area that interests me as much.

I have strong beliefs that older people and carers don’t get the services, the respect and the focus that they deserve and that can be quite a forceful drive when some working days make you wonder why you went into this profession to begin with!