In the Public Interest

The mission of APA's Public Interest Directorate includes promoting equitable and just treatment of all segments of society through education, training and public policy. APA has long focused on issues of diversity, and age is a critical aspect of diversity that should inform our work as researchers, practitioners and educators. Yet age and the intersection of age with other forms of diversity often do not come to mind when issues such as cultural competence, health disparities, human rights, and discrimination and prejudice are discussed.

For example, understanding the similarities and differences between older and younger people, and the diversity among older adults, should be included in any effort to increase multicultural sensitivity and competence. The suicide rate for older white men, among the highest of any age group, is a health disparity often overlooked in suicide-prevention conversations. Regarding human rights, research by former APA Committee on Aging member Victor Molinari, PhD, and his colleagues highlights the over-reliance on psychoactive medications to manage "problem" behaviors in nursing homes regardless of their dangerous side effects that have warranted a FDA "black-box" warning. They found that within three months of admission, more than 70 percent of residents in Florida nursing homes who had been admitted within a one-year period received at least one psychoactive medication. Most of these residents had not received such medication or a psychiatric diagnosis in the six months preceding their admissions.

Age prejudice in this country is one of the most socially condoned and institutionalized forms of prejudice. The Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Older Adults discuss the fact that ageist attitudes take multiple forms, often without intentional malice. According to the Stereotype Embodiment Theory of Yale University's Becca Levy, PhD, age stereotypes are internalized from society by younger people, reinforced for decades and become self-stereotypes when people reach old age. Levy and her colleagues have found that negative aging self-stereotypes predict adverse outcomes in older adults, such as worse physical and memory performance and shorter lives. Negative stereotypes also adversely affect health providers' attitudes and behaviors toward older clients, including setting inappropriately lower expectations for improvement and misattributing depression and cognitive difficulties to normative aging.

Psychologists are not immune to the pervasive, negative societal attitudes toward age. However, we can be agents of change as we have been for other social justice issues. Using our science, we can educate people on the challenges, growth and satisfaction that often accompany old age, rather than perpetuating negative stereotypes.

At the organizational level, APA continues to provide evidence-based information about advancing age to reduce stereotypes and eliminate decision-making based on faulty information about the aging process. APA's Office on Aging and Committee on Aging (CONA) provide resources to assist psychologists in reducing bias, including the abovementioned guidelines, the Multicultural Aging and Mental Health Resource Guide and the Multicultural Competency in Geropsychology report.

As individual psychologists, one first step is to speak up against ageist comments, just as we do when a disparaging comment is made about other groups that experience discrimination. We need to be mindful of the language we use, acknowledging the rich heterogeneity of older adults, rather than categorizing them as "the elderly." The APA Publications Manual recommends the term "older adults" (the terms "elderly" and "senior" are not acceptable as nouns and some may consider their use as adjectives pejorative).

Finally, on a personal level, we need to embrace rather than deny our own aging, and transmit unbiased messages to our children and to our elders. We can also learn more about what our science tells us about how best to plan a positive aging experience from CONA's "Life Plan for the Life Span" regardless of age.