Imagine if someone described you as "mutton dressed as lamb" because you were wearing a stylish dress from a clothing label popular with a younger set.
This frequently happens to 70-year-old Gwenda Darling who likes to wear the bright and colourful Mister Zimi clothing range. She has also received hate messages on Facebook and been abused in the street.
What if you went out for dinner and the waiter asked everyone at the table what sort of wine they wanted - white, red or sparkling - then when they got to you asked if you wanted a cup of tea?
This happened to former schoolteacher and statistician Val Fell who at 94 is Australia's oldest university student studying a Bachelor of Dementia Care at the University of Tasmania.
Val sits on the Council of Elders which advises the government on the quality and safety of aged care services, as well as advocating for the needs and rights of older Australians. She is also an active ambassador for the Older Persons Advocacy Network (OPAN), Dementia Australia and the Council on the Ageing (COTA). Currently she is arranging a forum for 300 people.
Lesley Forster,77, uses a wheel chair when she goes out, usually pushed by her home care support worker. When she went to the optometrist for a referral to an eye specialist, the optometrist ignored her and insisted on talking to the woman pushing the wheelchair. No matter how many times Lesley reminded the optometrist that she was the client, the optometrist seemed to have trouble getting the idea. A similar thing happened when she went to the pharmacy to purchase a blood pressure monitor.
All three women are intelligent, well educated, highly articulate and are active advocates for the needs of older Australians, but because of ageism they are often spoken down to and looked down on.
Ageism is discrimination against older people because of negative and inaccurate stereotypes. It's evident in beliefs, language and attitudes but is so ingrained that we often don't even notice.
Currently there is a lot of negativity against older people in Australian society and in the media (The Senior excepted). Think Boomer wealth, the cost of aged care, the housing crisis, pension costs, downsizing (and those who won't) and the ageing population - older people are unfairly being cast as the scapegoats for so many of our national ills.
The danger of ageism is that some people may internalise the negative messages, affecting their physical and mental well-being.
Gwenda, Val and Lesley could write the definitive book on the prevalence of ageism. They live the experience daily.
"From the age of 50 you become less visible and people don't engage with you in the same way," said Lesley. "You get ignored and overlooked. If you're in a wheelchair it's worse. People seem to think anyone in a wheelchair cannot speak for themselves."
Lesley describes going to the hairdresser and having the stylist ask her home care worker how she wanted her hair done!
Val was out with her daughter and met a woman she knew, but had not seen for some time. The woman said she would send Val some information on a particular topic. She then turned to Val's daughter and asked "Can she still read?" Then there was the in-law who asked her when she was going into a nursing home - because after-all, she was old enough.
From the age of 50 you become less visible and people don't engage with you in the same way. You get ignored and overlooked. If you're in a wheelchair it's worse. People seem to think anyone in a wheelchair cannot speak for themselves.- Leslie Forster
"Ageism is just rampant in Australia," said Val. "People are living longer and this is disturbing to a lot of people. We need to have a change of culture."
Gwenda was diagnosed 11 years ago with behavioural variant frontotemporal dementia and given five years to live with medication and three years without.
As a girl with bright red hair she was never allowed to wear pink. Now she wears the colour whenever she can. "I just love pink. I feel really strongly that age doesn't define me."
Be who you always wanted to be, do the things that bring you joy.- Gwenda Darling
However Gwenda's bright style does seem to be a threat to some people who feel they have the right to comment. "I was wearing a very smart knee-length suit and someone said 'that's a bit short for you'," said Gwenda. "And the other thing which gets me is being called lovey - you know - 'are you all right lovey'. I'm not their lovey."
Gwenda also sits on the Council of Elders and is a member of Dementia Australia's Advisory Panel. "No one has the right to tell me I'm too old to look the way I look, or too old to wear a particular brand of clothing," she added.
Her advice: "Be who you always wanted to be, do the things that bring you joy."
All three women are adamant that people who experience ageism do not let it slide or "wash over them", but speak out.
Ageism is just rampant in Australia. People are living longer and this is disturbing to a lot of people. We need to have a change of culture.- Val Fell
"I found that as I got older people began to feel they had the right to tell me what to do, how to think and even what to buy, so it's really important that you assert yourself," said Lesley, who like the other two women sits on OPAN's National Older Persons Reference Group; she also self-manages her home care package, is among those examining the new funding model for aged care and is involved with the University of Queensland on issues affecting seniors.
"I'm outspoken. I have nothing to lose."
According to the Australian Association of Gerontology ageism is a highly accepted form of prejudice in Australia and alarmingly, on a global scale 1 in 2 people are ageist - that's half of the world's population holding negative attitudes about ageing and older people.
I'm outspoken. I have nothing to lose.- Lesley Forster
Ageism Awareness Day will be held on October 7. Its purpose is to help change community attitudes and draw attention to the impacts of ageism in Australia,
To mark the day OPAN is hosting an online conversation with members of the National Older Persons Reference Group.
The event will involve discussion of the experiences of older people across Australia, and how ageism impacts their lives.
A recording will be uploaded to OPAN's website.
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