Southeast Asia is home to some of the world’s most rapidly ageing countries. This is the result of increased life expectancy and falling fertility rates.
In 1970, women in Southeast Asia had an average of 5.5 children. By 2017, that number was down to 2.1, and the total fertility rate dropped below the replacement level in Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. 1
Countries with slow population growth tend to be ageing ones. This has held true throughout the ASEAN region as every nation has experienced an increase in median age since 1970. By 2035, it is projected that 26.6% of Singapore’s population will be 65 or older, while the same group is expected to reach 22.8% in Thailand. In Vietnam, the proportion of those over 80 will rise to 20% by 2038.2
An ageing population shifts the narrative for the region’s economic growth prospects, as a declining working-age population pairs with an increasing old-age dependency ratio.
The complexities of elder abuse
Elder abuse is on the rise in Singapore, with over 90% of perpetrators being family members, including children and spouses, who also serve as caregivers. Factors such as caregiver stress and a history of family violence can complicate this issue. Photo: Ellis Lee / Unsplash
On a cultural scale, two factors tend to make a society more ageist — scarce resources and a growing percentage of older people in the population. More older people will need health and social care and financial security for retirement needs.3
The World Health Organization’s Global Report on Ageism4 reports that one out of every two people on earth may harbour ageist attitudes. Ageism is everywhere and it impacts everyone. We need to recognise it in our part of the world and take measures to reduce it. Compared to racism and sexism, ageism is the most socially normalised ‘prejudice’. Its consequences affect us deeply as individuals and the societies we live in.
Ageism can change us in many ways. It can alter our perceptions of ourselves and negatively impact our health, longevity and well-being. It can create generational divides, thereby limiting the benefits of interaction between those groups. Ageism can also foster serious economic consequences. 5
Our thoughts create stereotypes, beliefs and misconceptions that cloud our perspectives and judgment. These give rise to feelings that create prejudice against others. From there, our actions lead to discrimination.
Healthy, active and productive ageing
Adopted in 2015, the Kuala Lumpur Declaration on Ageing: ‘Empowering Older Persons in ASEAN’ focuses on empowering older persons by mainstreaming older persons’ rights into public policies and programmes, raising awareness of the needs of older persons, and eliminating discrimination. Photo:Vasily Gureev / Alamy Stock Photo
Like the racist and the sexist, the ageist relies on the concept of ‘othering’ — where we see a group of people as being unlike ourselves. That perceived difference leads to bias and prejudice.
Ageism exists because of fear and denial that we will become the other person — the older person whom we see as an unwelcome stereotype. All of us are exposed to negative images and messages about older people from society at large, the media, movies and negative stories about older people. Through these experiences, our brains become wired to implicitly believe that becoming old means going downhill both cognitively and physically. Thus, we might consider ageism to be a coping mechanism that allows people to avoid thinking about their own mortality.
All ‘isms’ are socially constructed ideas that pit us against one another, but ageism’s target makes it a singular and strange phenomenon. Of the three categories of ‘isms’ — sex, race and age — age is the only one in which the members of the in-group (the young) are destined to join the out-group (the old). Ageism is therefore prejudiced against our future self — our feared future self. That is why I find it strange that although ageism can compromise the quality of our own life into old age, many of us become ageists.
World Health Organization (WHO) works together with key partners on a global campaign to combat ageism — an initiative supported by WHO’s 194 member states. The campaign aims to change the narrative around age and ageing and help create a world for all ages. Source: Global Campaign to Combat Ageism toolkit
AGEISM IN THE WORKPLACE
New data from ADP’s Global Workforce View 2020 report shows that Singaporean workplaces have some of the highest incidences of age discrimination in the Asia-Pacific region, with 17% of workers saying they have experienced such discrimination in their current role. The survey found the regional average to be 12% and Asia- Pacific has the highest regional incidence of perceived discrimination.6
Embracing today’s greater longevity requires policymakers and employers to reject yesterday’s preconceptions about ageing. Chronological age does not equate with function and does not equate with cognition. Ageing is also very heterogenous and so it should not be used as a proxy for capability. As such, we should do away with our practices of fixed retirement and re-employment age, as is the practice in Singapore.
Despite reported ageism in the workplace, the Philippines is the only country in our region that has any legislation which expressly prohibits age discrimination. In Singapore, there are only guidelines regarding fair treatment in the workplace by the Tripartite Alliance for Fair & Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP). This is not enough. Fortunately, Singapore is working to codify the current workplace anti-discrimination guidelines into law. Employers have to face the reality that the workforce is ageing, and it would be to their benefit to continue to upskill and retain their older workers. Practising ageism is not a productive way to go.
Companies must ensure that their employees — including their leadership — attend sessions to be aware of unconscious biases directed towards older workers. This needs to be part of their diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI) agenda. We are living longer, so each new cohort of the older population is effectively younger and should not be discriminated against because of chronological age. Their ability to do the work is what is important. Leaders must recognise the value of the experience and institutional memory of older workers. They should also organise the transfer of skills between generations and teach younger leaders about reverse mentoring.
In addition, older workers have to rid themselves of the negative perceptions of ageing. They should engage in lifelong learning and try to build allies with younger co-workers throughout their working careers. Doing so will deliver individual and collective benefits.
Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?
Research conducted by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), titled ‘How attitudes to ageing affect our health and wellbeing,’ found that almost half of women and a quarter of men feel immense pressure to stay looking young. The RSPH has called for the term ‘anti-ageing’ to be banned across the beauty and cosmetics industry. Photo: Sipa USA / Alamy Live News
AGEISM AND GENDER
Outside of the workplace, ageism also impacts our daily lives and the gender dimension of ageism is a double blow for women. In our culture and elsewhere, youth and beauty are greatly prized, especially for women. Women become ‘older earlier’ and are more often judged by their physical appearance, rather than their accomplishments.
Grey hair and facial lines are seen as making men look distinguished and experienced whereas they merely make women look ‘old’. Therefore, women often disguise the fact that they are ageing. That is one reason why many women do not like to tell their age. Old age seems to make women invisible and therefore, many women want to avoid looking old so that they are not overlooked in their attempt to remain socially and professionally engaged. This is one reason why the aesthetic industry is so successful and so many of its clients are women. We should work toward a genderless outlook on ageing in which everyone is recognised and appreciated for the experience their years have given them.
“Ladies, don't let anybody tell you you're ever past your prime.”
In her acceptance speech for the Academy Award for Best Actress for ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’, the Malaysia-born 60-year-old Michelle Yeoh made a point to call out gendered ageism and encourage those who want to follow in her path. Photo: Buy my stock picture / Alamy Stock Photo
AGEISM AND COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has helped expose ageism and age discrimination in society. In a statement published during the pandemic, Claudia Mahler, the UN Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons, called for urgent action against ageism. As she noted, “Ageist comments and hate speech were ripe with older persons being blamed as the reasons for lockdowns and labelled as vulnerable and burdens
to societies.” In reality, society placed greater burdens on older people during that time as our ageist assumptions made it “more difficult for older persons to get equal access to medical care.7”
One study found the pandemic compounded the impact of ageism and that those effects might outlast the challenging circumstances in which they arose.
As the researchers noted8, “Being the target of ageism during the crisis negatively affects older adults’ self-perceptions of ageing and this impact may be felt beyond the current crisis.” The same study noted that while we develop subjective perceptions of ageing early in life, they “can change over the life span as a function of experiences.”
THE INTERNALISATION OF AGEISM BY OLDER PEOPLE
One of the most insidious effects of ageism is that older people internalise negative attitudes which become self-relevant and self- fulfilling prophesies. The older person then feels that it is not worth trying to age actively, not worth doing routine health screening, not worth living a healthy lifestyle and that nothing can be done about frailty and disease as they are part of getting old. It is crucial that we consider the effects of ageism as we develop and enact policies to keep older people healthy via beneficial efforts like age-friendly housing, affordable health care and senior centres.
It is interesting to note that credible scientific research has shown that negative and positive self- perceptions of ageing can have profound effects on health and longevity.
One study found that older people with more positive self-perceptions of ageing, measured up to 23 years earlier, lived 7.5 years longer than those with less positive self-perceptions of ageing. This advantage remained after age, gender, socioeconomic status, loneliness, and functional health were included as covariates.9
This study shows how positive self-perceptions of ageing trump other social determinants of health and how important it is to instil this factor into our health and social policies.
The results of another study suggest that positive age beliefs — which are modifiable and have been found to reduce stress — can act as a protective factor. It further found that these benefits occur even for older individuals at high risk of dementia. This is the first study to link the brain changes related to Alzheimer’s disease — a devastating neurodegenerative disorder that causes dementia in millions of people worldwide — to a culturally- based psychosocial risk factor. Ageism increases our risk of disease.10 This last study suggests that combatting negative beliefs about ageing could potentially offer a way to reduce the rapidly rising rate of Alzheimer’s disease.
In Singapore, the statistics for dementia are worrying — one in 10 people over the age of 60 and one in two over the age of 85 have dementia. Over 100,000 are estimated to be diagnosed with dementia in Singapore.11 Therefore, our health strategy must prioritise combatting negative beliefs about ageing.
The ageless beauty
Tattoo artist Apo Whang-Od, 106, has graced the cover of Vogue Philippines on its beauty issue, becoming the oldest-ever cover star of the global fashion magazine. The decision to forgo common fashion publication templates and span beyond mere style and beauty standards hopefully marks a new era in the industry. Source: Vogue Philippines
Ageism exists in our institutions, our relationships and ourselves, and so we have to work at all these levels to reduce ageism.
On an individual level, we should explore and explode our own unconscious biases. A common example is when an older person forgets something, he or she will say apologetically, “I’m having a senior moment?” Younger people also forget things, but they do not say, “I am having a junior moment.”
On the family level, some young people here and
in other Asian societies have a misplaced sense of filial piety. They show their love and devotion by putting too many restraints on their elderly parents.
While moderate shows of affection elevate the mood of the older person, too much support can reinforce feelings of inadequacy. This can make older people feel powerless and vulnerable, which can lead to depression.
Tough love is a concept that is familiar to many. The phrase commonly applies to raising youth. However, older people can also benefit when adult children allow their elderly parents to live as independently as possible and accomplish certain activities by themselves. In the long run, tough love tactics can help the older person.
On a societal level, we should work towards an age- integrated society. The old and young can study together. Senior care centres can also be student care centres where there is interdependency and mutual support. Such age-integration could bring about a positive change in our thinking, behaviour, policies and institutions.
It is worth pointing out that the establishment of an age-integrated society will spur the formation of an inclusive society because older people are from different genders, races, religions and abilities and if we accept them for themselves and feel no prejudice against them and our future selves, then the other ‘isms’ will melt away from our consciousness. Getting there will require things like policy shifts and changes to the way we run businesses, as well as the outlooks and actions of individuals and society as a whole.
Intergenerational experiences in community
St Joseph’s Home was the first in Singapore to launch an infant and childcare centre in a nursing home in 2017. They introduced an intergenerational curriculum where children and the elderly interact in activities such as singing and doing arts and crafts, and develop mutual respect and understanding for one another. Source: St Joseph’s Home
DR KANWALJIT SOIN
Dr Kanwaljit Soin is a well-respected orthopaedic and hand surgeon. She is also a former and Singapore’s first female Nominated Member of Parliament, from 1992-1996. Dr Soin, who was inducted into the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame in 2014, is actively involved in welfare and advocacy organisations. She became a founding member of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) in 1985 and was AWARE’s president between 1991-1993. Her other credentials include being the founding chair of the Singapore chapter of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and the founding president of the Society for Women’s Initiative for Ageing Successfully (WINGS). Dr Soin has received accolades such as the Singapore Medical Association Merit Award, Singapore’s Woman of the Year, the International Women’s Forum’s Women Who Make a Difference Award and a UNIFEM Lifetime Achievement Award. She is also the author of Silver Shades of Grey: Memos for Successful Ageing in the 21st Century.
- https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/sites/c416afed-en/index.html?itemId=/content/component/c416afed-en; https://theaseanpost.com/article/declining-fertility-rates-asean
- https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/median-age?time=1970..2022&countr y=KHM~BRN~MYS~MMR~LAO~IDN~PHL~SGP~THA~VNM
- https://www.who.int/teams/social-determinants-of-health/demographic- change-and-healthy-ageing/combatting-ageism/global-report-on-ageism
- https://www.peoplemattersglobal.com/news/diversity/singapore-has- most-age-discrimination-in-apac-27840
- https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2021/09/pandemic-exposes-ageism-and-age- discrimination-society-says-un-expert#:~:text=During%20the%20pandemic%2C%20ageist%20 comments,vulnerable%20and%20burdens%20to%20societies
- Levy, Slade, Kunkel, & Kasl, 2002
- Levy, Slade, Pietrzak, & Ferrucci, 2018