Attitudes of others

Society’s attitudes to ageing affect people’s everyday experiences. Several people we spoke to felt they have not been treated any differently as they have become older.

Olga feels people do not treat her any differently at the age of 88, if anything they show her more respect.

Other people talked about being overlooked by shop assistants, feeling their input is less valued at work and being spoken down to by health providers. Participants with limited mobility were more likely to discuss how they are treated differently in public spaces (see Transport and mobility). People who came from culturally diverse backgrounds often mentioned the increased respect they received within their community as they grew older. The various ways in which participants experienced ageing in Australia illustrates the importance of personal perceptions, the attitudes and actions of others and broader social values.

When participants described the lack of respect they feel older people receive in the community it was most often attributed to young people not having manners, or not giving up their seat on public transport. Brian H and Robyn have both experienced being ‘pushed out of the way’ when using mobility aids.

Robyn was pushed out of the way while using her walking frame and trying to open a door to a public building.

It makes Brian H feel terrible when he is using his walking stick and people barge past him at the shopping centre.

In contrast, Tamara appreciates the friendly way bus drivers greet her in Australia and compares this to the way in which she has been treated in her home country, Ukraine.

Tamara describes the way older people are treated on public transport in Ukraine and feels that ‘only bold people can survive’.

Participants, particularly women, spoke about feeling ‘invisible’ as they grew older, for example when trying to be served at a shop. Chris was the only man to express a similar sentiment.

Leonie finds it takes longer to be served by shop assistants and thinks it may have something to do with physical changes such as getting shorter as you age.

Nora Lee feels she was overlooked by men after the age of 50.

While Chris does not feel invisible he has noticed he is not given the same amount of attention by shop assistants.

In contrast to being overlooked, some people felt ‘doted on’ in their older years. This could be positive, for example when given a seat on public transport or not expected to clean up at family gatherings. However, it can also make people ‘feel old’ or in some way different and excluded.

It makes Len feel old when people give up their seat for him on public transport.

Val’s lack of mobility means people open doors for her and find her a seat. This makes her feel doted on and not ‘one of the others’.

Ageism is discriminating or treating people differently because of their age. Participants experienced this as being treated according to the stereotype of someone their age rather than as an individual, or according to their lack of mobility rather than their actual abilities. Chester had a particularly bad experience at a shopping centre in Sydney.

Chester sometimes feels ‘despised’ for being old. He finds he is treated better in situations where he is physically agile.

Being ‘spoken down to’ was another problem experienced mostly within health services and at the shops. Some examples included shop assistants directing questions or answers to the person’s companion, altering the way they communicated which led to not addressing a person as an individual, such as “How are we?” and “Come along now dearie”.

When Marlene was in hospital the nurses often spoke down to her like a child. She also experienced this when caring for her mother and feels it is demeaning.

Marie feels angry when people talk to her in a patronising way. She wants to be treated as an individual.

Participants experienced various forms of age discrimination in the workplace. As a health professional, Leonie found she was receiving fewer patient referrals from doctors as she got older. Some people who continued to work after they were 65 felt pressure to resign or sensed their colleagues thought they were too old for the job.

Robyn feels she has hit a glass ceiling in terms of her career. Because she is older she finds she is less likely to be listened to in meetings.

Participants from diverse cultural backgrounds, including Chinese, Ethiopian, Aboriginal Australian, Iranian and Sri Lankan, were more likely to associate their senior years with greater respect and standing within the community. Similarly, people said they experienced greater respect when travelling in foreign countries, such as Southeast Asia, than in Australia.

Elaine M is proud to have white hair as a symbol of her old age and wisdom. She explains how older people are respected in Aboriginal (Yolngu) culture.

Dot explains the care and respect she receives being part of her husband’s Chinese family.

People who experienced greater respect for older people in their own culture also discussed the drawbacks associated with lack of autonomy and independence in those settings; they were expected to stay home and look after grandchildren. This was contrasted with a more autonomous attitude to ageing in Australia and how this creates opportunities for older people to participate in work and have a social life.

If Olga was still in Sri Lanka she would not be able to go out on her own or drive a car at night. She feels that older people in Australia are able to go to any heights.