The Pandemic Reveals the Disturbing Depths of Ageism, Especially for Women

Ageism, a new study finds, is “prevalent, ubiquitous and insidious” and not getting enough global attention.

5 min readApr 7, 2021

by Barbara Crossette. read more on PassBlue.

In Brooklyn, N.Y., a cafe on the Coney Island boardwalk draws people of all ages, soaking up the sun in the pandemic, October 2020. JOHN PENNEY

During more than a year of tracking the parameters of Covid-19, medical science has made one thing clear: the virus hits the elderly hardest. Yet their vulnerability is often taken as fate. A new international study disagrees. Prejudice, institutional bias and societal discrimination against older people in both rich and poor countries, it says, set the stage long before the virus struck. There was nothing inevitable about the pandemic’s effects.

Tapping into scores of research from dozens of countries for the study, “Global Report on Ageism,” experts argue that it is a persistent threat that is not getting enough global attention. Published on March 18, their report is a combined effort of four crucial United Nations entities: the World Health Organization, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Department of Economic and Social Affairs and the Population Fund.

The UN does not have a dedicated agency on aging, although the world’s population is steadily getting older in many places. HelpAge International, a civil society organization with 158 members in 86 countries, fills some gaps with hotlines and help centers as well as a range of other services, including legal advice and assistance.

Poor women, widows in particular, are often cheated out of inheritance or welfare income — even evicted from family homes in numerous developing countries where female literacy is low. Physical abuse is not uncommon.

HelpAge is now leading a global campaign for a UN convention on the rights of the elderly. Its call for a UN accord as well as the “Global Report on Ageism” (which includes sections on negative biases against youth) were released before a session of a working group on aging that met at UN headquarters in New York City from March 29 to April 1. The emphases in the meetings were the right to work and access to justice.

The global report from the four UN entities is remarkably strong and uncompromising in tone.

“This report shows that ageism is prevalent, ubiquitous and insidious because it goes largely unrecognized and unchallenged,” the leaders of the UN organizations wrote. “Ageism has serious and far-reaching consequences for people’s health, well-being and human rights and costs society billions of dollars.”

“Across the life course, ageism interacts with ableism, sexism and racism compounding disadvantage,” the study said. What the experts define as “gendered ageism” is especially pernicious. “Women are often in a situation of double jeopardy in which patriarchal norms and a preoccupation with youth result in a faster deterioration of older women’s status compared with that of men.”

“This double jeopardy also explains why the physical appearance of older women is judged differently than that of older men,” it noted. “Men with grey hair and wrinkles are seen as distinguished, wise and experienced, whereas grey hair and wrinkles are considered to make women look unattractive in many cultures. Women also face greater pressure than men to hide signs of ageing . . . [and] they are targeted by an ever-growing anti-ageing beauty industry.”

Two other ways in which the intersection between ageism and sexism manifest are through accusations of witchcraft and discrimination directed against older widows, the study found.

Institutionally, the report showed through data that, for example, “in health care, disparities have been documented in terms of older women’s access to preventive care and treatment. Multiple studies conducted in the United States have reported that older men generally receive more thorough medical examinations, more follow-up and more evidence-based medical care than women do.”

HelpAge, in its campaign for a UN convention to protect older people, contends that Covid-19 exposed an ingrained, systemic ageism. It urges governments to start drafting an agreement to deal with the problem.

“Discrimination and inequalities facing older people are certainly nothing new, but the COVID-19 pandemic has brought these issues to the fore like never before,” Bridget Sleap, a senior rights policy adviser at HelpAge, said in a statement on March 29. “This is why we urgently need a UN convention on the rights of older people and we need to see concrete action being taken right now.”

HelpAge has created a 17-page online toolkit to advise advocates how to choose a focused “hot” topic in the aging rights agenda to attract attention, build communications strategies and lobby governments to act on a convention draft.

What makes a society prone to ageism? The World Health Organization analyzed studies done in recent years. Some conclusions are included in the “Global Report on Ageism.” Based on surveys of personal attitudes of more than 83,000 people in 57 countries, between 2010 and 2014, the WHO found that “at least one in every two people held moderately or highly ageist attitudes.” The agency suggested some correlations with income and development levels.

The highest prevalence of ageism emerged in surveys in low-income and lower-middle-income countries, such as India, Nigeria and Yemen. “This is concerning,” the WHO said, “given that about half (48.3%) of the world’s population lives in low-income and lower middle-income countries.” A lower incidence of ageism was recorded in countries with higher income levels.

Generally, the agency said, “Analyses of these data showed that the prevalence of highly ageist attitudes was slightly higher among younger people and males, and it was markedly higher among people who had less education.”

The UN has just entered a self-proclaimed “decade of healthy aging” in 2021–2030, aligned with the final decade of action on the Sustainable Development Goals. The calls to act against ageism turn a brighter spotlight on the lives of the world’s older citizens in the context of the SDGs.

The WHO notes that there are more than 1 billion people aged 60 years and older in the global population, adding: “Many do not have access to even the basic resources necessary for a life of meaning and of dignity.”




Independent Coverage the United Nations. A project of The New School’s Studley Graduate Program in International Affairs, supported by the Carnegie Corporation.