Ageism and an Age Friendly Legal Services and Workplace

Ageism Generally

Ageism has been defined as the process of systematic stereotyping and discrimination against older people because of age, with a distinct valuing of younger age groups. [Butler, 1969].  It is really any prejudice or discrimination against or in favour of any age group.  Regarding older adults, ageism allows people to covertly justify certain discriminatory behaviours, and tolerate activities toward older adults that would be considered unacceptable if experienced by other adults.

Systemic Ageism

Ageism can lead to individual acts of discrimination, as well as discrimination that is systemic in nature

Systemic can include the design and everyday operations of workplaces, services, programs and facilities. Discrimination may also happen when a rule, condition, policy or practice that is the same for everyone has an unfair effect on a person because of their age [‘disparate impact’ in human rights parlance].

Institutional Ageism

Missions, rules, and practices that discriminate against individuals and or groups because of their older age:

  • Choices regarding scarce resources
  • Mandatory retirement
  • Absence of older persons in clinical trials
  • Devaluing of older persons in cost-benefit analyses









Bias against persons or groups based on their older age. Missions, rules, and practices that discriminate against individuals and or groups because of their older age. Practices carried with knowledge of bias: take advantage of the vulnerabilities of older persons. Practices in which perpetrators unaware of bias against persons or groups based on their older age


Agesim in Canada

Ageism in Canada

Ageism has been called a “pervasive and sinister plague” in Canada.  The most commonly named forms of ageism faced by seniors in Canada were:

  • treating them as if they’re invisible (41 per cent);
  • acting as if they have nothing to contribute (38 per cent); and
  • assuming they’re incompetent (27 per cent).

Canadians over 66 perceived a variety of perpetrators for these attitudes, including:

  • people younger than themselves (56 per cent);
  • health care professionals and the health care system (34 per cent); and
  • the government (27 per cent).


As distinct from other forms of prejudice and discrimination (e.g., other ‘ism’s’ such as racism and sexism), ageism does not tend to be proscribed by political correctness.  This may play out in the legal system’s responses to age discrimination.  As noted by the Ontario Human Rights Commission:

“Age cases tend to be treated differently than other discrimination cases…The most notable difference from a human rights perspective is the lack of a sense of moral opprobrium linked to age discrimination which in comparable circumstances would generate outrage if the ground of discrimination were say race, sex or disability.”

Paradoxically the people who like old people are more likely to engage in ‘over accommodating’ language (“dear” “mum”)

Coping Mechanism

For other ‘’ behaviours against a subgroup, those who have been stigmatized since birth may acquire ‘coping strategies’ from their subgroup.  However, individuals tend to enter old age unprepared to resist negative age stereotypes.

Ageism and health care

Seniors are often interacting with the health care system, for obvious reasons.

  • Absence of services for older adults
  • Focus on acute care and cure rather than chronic care
  • Age based decision-making in health (“age rationing”)
  • Making decisions about the quality of older people’s lives
  • Paternalism
  • Omission from clinical trials
  • Less treatment for mental health issues (15% of mental health care; 80% for 20-64)
  • Forced decisions
  • Also gender bias – more radical mastectomies, less reconstructive surgery
  • Over medication of older adults:
    • anxiety meds double over 65
    • hypnotic medication use more than triples
    • ‘Polypharmacy’ – multiple drugs
    • Medication can be a form of ‘restraint’ in care homes
    • 40% of all emergency department visits by older adults are medication related


Personal Responses

A first step in this process is identifying personal attitudes which are ageist in nature.  This can be difficult since most people will deny that they are prejudiced. However, until a person is aware of this or her own attitudes, little progress can be made. The ROPE – Relating to Older People Evaluation is an example of an ‘aging quiz’ or exercise to help identify ageist attitudes.  We should challenge others ageist beliefs and attitudes when confronted with them.

Organizational Responses

We also need to work on our workplaces [see age friendly workplace – self assessment tool below] and the law more generally. See: Developing an Anti-Ageist Approach Within Law, written by Professor Margaret Hall of Thomson River University for the Law Commission of Ontario, along with the broader A Framework for the Law as It Affects Older Adults from the Law Commission.  One should look at what sort of environment you are providing.  Ensure you have an age friendly and dementia friendly workplace and website, for your staff and your clients.