Ageism is a persistent issue that has yet to go away in society, one author said.
Part of the problem comes down to what society values, said Kim Samuel, author of the new book “On Belonging: Finding Connection in an Age of Isolation” (published by Abrams). She is also the founder of the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness, and has spent decades researching human connection and fighting social isolation.
Samuel has witnessed the hazards of social isolation numerous times, she said, such as when her then-65-year-old father suffered a brain injury that affected his physical and cognitive abilities. People didn’t know what to say or do for him, or her mother, who became his primary caregiver.
When he woke up from a coma, the conversations surrounding his care were less about rehabilitation and more about finding the right nursing home. “Based on his age, he was deemed to be in his sundown years,” she said.
A person’s sense of belonging in society should be a given, she said, but that’s not always the case. She spoke with MarketWatch about what it takes to achieve that sense of belonging and some of the challenges society presents to older Americans.
Here are three key takeaways:
Ageism is persistent – in and out of the workforce
Older Americans face ageism at their jobs and during the hiring process, but outside of the workforce, too – such as at the doctor’s office or when shopping or dining out. Many commercials also feature older people as helpless or physically impaired. “Why does it almost sometimes feel like an acceptable social norm to talk about people who are over the hill or out to pasture because of their birthday?” Samuel said.
It comes down to what society values in general, which may be younger people over older people, or new things over older things. Older workers have decades of experience they can share with their younger colleagues, but if they’re viewed as a drain on the workforce – they won’t be valued members of it. There’s a perception that the cost of having older members participate in society doesn’t outweigh the benefits, she said, and “that is a very sad and misinformed way of looking at the world,” Samuel added.
Some companies and cities are looking to change that perspective. New York City recently unveiled the Silver Stars program, which encourages retired city employees to return to work while still keeping their pensions. The city’s Department of Aging links these retirees with various agencies, such as the fire department and the Administration of Children Services. Michelin and Unilever also invite their retirees to come back to work through retiree-specific programs.
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There’s a connection between ageism and social isolation
And that connection is direct, Samuel said. “Ageism implies that someone is of lesser value because of their age,” she said. As such, they may be discouraged from participating in various aspects of society – or at least feel as though they are. Loneliness is a dangerous result of that loss of connection. “There’s evidence of people who are so lonely that they would rather die,” the author said.
Loneliness isn’t just emotionally detrimental, but physically harmful as well. Research from 148 studies involving 300,000 participants found social connections reduced the risk of dying early. Another study also found loneliness can be linked to a premature death. People who consider themselves lonely are less likely to engage in society, such as through volunteer work or going to religious services, and may develop anxiety. They’re also less likely to maintain their health and stress or sleep well, research found.
“Older people need to be given a platform to speak out about their needs,” Samuel said. “If you devalue people, even not meaning to, you’re contributing to their isolation.”
Family, friends and neighbors can help. Offering a healthy hot meal is a start, as is taking a walk or planning a visit. Multigenerational gatherings are also beneficial, such as in a family or a class, because there are stories to share and lessons to learn among the various ages.
“It doesn’t have to be one kind of event or get-together,” Samuel said. “If they want to go to school, or they want to learn photography – whatever they want to do – there’s no age limit on this,” she said. “We need to begin with the revolutionary idea – it’s not really revolutionary – that we’re all equal and we all belong.”
The four pillars to belonging
People, place, power and purpose – those are the four pillars to a sense of belonging, which is a “fundamental driver in human culture,” Samuel said.
Here’s how they are broken down:
People : Social connection relies on relationships with others, and is a crucial factor in fighting isolation.
Place: In an ideal world, people care about where they live and that place in turn cares for them. This could be nature, or it can be the city, but feeling at home supports the feeling of belonging.
Power: The ability to make decisions is important, as it supports a sense of control over one’s self and the hopes of shaping the future.
Purpose: Many individuals need to have purpose in their lives, which is why not everyone enjoys retirement when they enter it without having a plan for this new lifestyle. Purpose is about creating meaning and “sharing our gifts with the world,” Samuel said in her book.
“We share the fundamental right to belong,” Samuel said. “Those pillars are based on the connection that we all have with the people around us, the place where we are, the power to make decisions and our connection to a larger purpose.”