How ageist is our society? – Interview with the Centre for Ageing Better

Written by Zenya Smith08/03/24


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The Centre for Ageing Better is a UK charity championing ways to make ageing better a reality for everyone. They tackle inequalities such as poor housing, health discrimination, and feeling excluded from society.

The charity is working hard to inspire and inform those in power to recognise the difficulties faced by by older people, and  call out ageism in all its forms.

Did you know that ageism is the most widespread form of discrimination in the UK? And, that last year alone over half of people over 50 experienced some form of age related discrimination? 

Ahead of their Action Day on the 20th March, we spoke to the Centre for Ageing Better about their pioneering ‘Age Without Limits’ campaign which is encouraging everyone to take a stand against ageism. They shared the devastating true impacts of ageism, as well as ways we can all do our bit to help change negative perceptions of later life. 

Can you tell us about the origins of the campaign, and the response so far?

Ageism is the most widespread form of discrimination. Unlike any other protected characteristic, age is universal.  Regardless of race, gender, ability, sexual orientation – we’re all ageing.  Ageism affects everyone and so ageism is a prejudice against our future selves.

And yet, it’s a prejudice that’s largely overlooked and ignored despite the enormous harm it’s been shown to cause. It’s so embedded in our society that many of us neither recognise it when it’s directed towards us, nor acknowledge that we may be inadvertently contributing to the problem.

Thinking negatively about ageing and older people has been accepted and ignored for too long.  The Age Without Limits campaign aims to spark debate and conversation about what ageism is and to change the way we all think about ageing.

While this is the Centre for Ageing Better’s first public facing anti-ageism campaign, tackling the issue has been the underlying root of almost everything we’ve done as a charity since our founding in 2015 in developing age-friendly employment, work, health support and communities. We’ve been delighted with the overwhelmingly positive response to the campaign in its first month.

Nearly 20% of the population in England alone is over 65, yet ageism is still prevalent. Why is this?

One of the significant challenges in tackling ageism is that it is so embedded in our society and even accepted as normal by those of us who are older. We see and hear casual ageism every day in the media, on TV, at work, in pubs and cafes, on social media, and in family conversations. 

We also internalise these negative ideas about ageing and often unwittingly hold them without really questioning them or challenging ourselves on these views.


It can be a difficult and uncomfortable process to reflect on and question your own attitudes towards ageing and older people, and to acknowledge the ideas that have unknowingly taken root in your head.

And it can be even more uncomfortable to take the next step and challenge other people when they exhibit ageist behaviour or views. But it’s also a necessary step if we’re to ensure that ageist thinking stops being the norm or the default for society. 

Many people see ageing as a disease they need to fight back against rather than what it actually is, a natural process we should all hope to go through.

As part of the campaign you shared Tony’s story, where he spoke about his experience of medical ageism. How widespread is this issue in the UK?

More than one in ten people (13%) aged 51-70 told an Age Without Limits survey they felt others might be judging them negatively because of their age in a health or social care setting in the past year. 

In the health and social care setting, ageism can manifest as being talked down to, patronised and infantilised, for example by healthcare professionals, or not receiving care and treatment that is based on an objective assessment of health needs, but instead based around assumptions made in relation to age.

Our Ageism: What’s the Harm? report details how older people are impacted by upper age limits on screening programmes, the organisation of mental health services, variations by age in cardiac and cancer care, and the use of remaining life expectancy as a criterion to determine willingness to pay for drugs and interventions by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Older people also continue to be excluded from clinical trials, meaning that the efficacy, dosage and adverse effects of new treatments are unknown in this patient group.

What can people do if they think they’re being discriminated against within health and social care?

We would recommend to first raise the issue with their health or social care provider and to follow their complaints procedure. The Equality Advisory and Support Service (EASS) has a helpline which advises and assists individuals on issues relating to equality and human rights, across England, Scotland and Wales. 

What are some of the other damaging impacts of ageism that people may not be so aware of?

The damaging impacts of ageism are wide-ranging and extremely serious.

The negative, as well as the general shortage of portrayals of older people in the media, advertising and popular culture, often leads to poor body image or increased pessimism or anxiety about getting older.

The stress from negative experiences in the workplace such as being overlooked by an employer for promotion or development, or feeling forced into retiring earlier than planned, or the stress of needing but being unable to get a job because of age bias in recruitment are all sadly commonplace. 

Internalised ageism, caused by the continual intake of negative messages in society about the inevitability of decline as we age can prevent people seeking timely support for health issues because they’re dismissed as being part of ageing. Fear of being judged for taking part in activities deemed “inappropriate” for our age, might mean that we don’t engage in health protecting activity such as a broad range of exercise

And, research has also shown that people who reported experiencing age discrimination are more likely to have coronary heart disease, chronic lung disease, arthritis, limiting long-standing illness, and depressive symptoms than those who did not feel impacted by age discrimination.

Is it contributing to higher rates of loneliness too? 

Ageism disrupts social cohesion by segregating age groups and creating intergenerational division.

This results in younger people deprived of the knowledge and experience of elders, and older people deprived of opportunities for relationships and social connections that might help them avert feeling lonely or isolated.

All of society is harmed by this loss of social cohesion which is recognised to be among the wider determinants of health and associated with economic growth.

When it comes to charities and the public sector, are we at risk of disempowering those we are trying to help due to how we portray later life? 

There is a balance to be struck with how later life is depicted, one that we haven’t reached yet in society.

On the one hand, all too often older people are depicted as frail and dependent. Often this is done with good intentions to elicit sympathy and support.

But it also skews our expectations of later life and so we often overestimate the extent to which ill health and dependency is a normal part of ageing. Just one in 40 older people (aged 65 and over) live in care homes, yet the public thinks it’s one in four.

On the other hand, other depictions of older people, particularly in the media, can at times lean too far the other way to focus on individuals who challenge ageist stereotypes in extreme ways, such as marathon-running or parachuting seniors. Again this is often done with good intentions.

But it skews expectations of later life and can be used to shame other older people who don’t meet these exceptional heights. A wholly positive depiction of older age also risks sanitising the experience of ageing when we know for some, it can be a difficult experience, often because of the accumulation of a lifetime of inequality. 

How can we strike a better balance?

We need to see greater representation of later life that lies in the middle of these two extremes. The balance needs to be struck in recognising that older people are not one homogenous group but an ever-more diverse population with a huge range of lived experiences. It is important that breadth of experience is captured in more realistic portrayals.


It can be a difficult and uncomfortable process to reflect on and question your own attitudes towards ageing and older people and to acknowledge the ideas that have unknowingly taken root in your head.

How big of an impact is ageism having on people’s perceptions of later life care? 

Without a doubt ageism causes people to hold excessively negative thoughts about what their later life will be like.  The extent to which ill-health and dependency is considered a “normal part of ageing” is significantly overestimated.

In surveys we conducted as part of our Age Without Limits campaign, over a quarter of people (27%) are worried they won’t be very mobile when they are old; almost a third (30%) are worried they won’t be in good physical health; more than one in five (21%) are worried they won’t have good mental function and around a quarter of people (24%) are worried they won’t be independent and will have to rely on others for help. And yet just one in 10 people aged 65 and over are defined as frail.

Just as many people overstate the proportions of older people living in care homes, around two in three people (65%) overestimate the proportion of older people who have dementia, with many believing it’s significantly higher than the reality of 7% of the older population. 

So it’s not surprising that so many people see ageing as a disease they need to fight back against rather than what it actually is, a natural process we should all hope to go through. 

An asian woman helping an older lady to prepare a meal in the kitchen

If there was just one action you’d like people to take on the 20th March, what would it be?

For the first-ever annual Age Without Limits’ Action Day there will be scores of events organised by community groups across length and breadth of the country.   

As part of this Action Day, we’ll also be hosting, with the generous support of Age UK, a free four-day photography exhibition in London, which has been designed to challenge people’s perceptions of what ageing looks like and showcase the myriad ways we are ageing.

It would be fantastic if as many people as possible were able to get involved in events near them. A full list of events will be made available on the website before the Action Day.

Community groups, organisations and businesses can also organise their own Action Day events. Action Day packs and resources are available to download from the Age Without Limits website.

For anyone who is not able to make an Action Day event, we hope they will still be able to find the time to take a moment to consider if they hold any ageist beliefs or attitudes.

People can visit to take our quiz to help them find out as well as find other resources to learn more about ageism and the harm it causes and to find out how to challenge ageism when they come across it. 


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