Biz Basics

By Beau Denton March 1, 2011


Speaking loudly, exaggerating facial expressions, offering to help climb stairs: Each of these could indicate kindness and sympathy—or, depending on the situation, they could be a sign of ageism. “People quickly judge others,” says Kathy Black, an associate professor and gerontologist at USF Sarasota-Manatee. “Unfortunately, it’s done very superficially—mostly based on visual stimuli.” Assuming an elderly person has bad hearing or difficulty climbing stairs might be offensive to a vital, engaged senior or to someone who works to maintain health in old age.

This is especially an issue in a popular retirement destination like Sarasota and Manatee, where more than 30 percent of the population is 65 or older. “All businesses should be concerned about this,” says Black. If an older customer repeatedly feels like he or she is being treated condescendingly based on age, that experience will affect the company’s reputation. No adult wants to be treated like a child or suffer the humiliation of having someone assume they are weak or incapable because of age. Customers and clients return most frequently to places where they are treated with dignity and respect; Black commends local Publix stores for training employees to be considerate and helpful without being condescending.

Ageism can run in both directions. The elderly treat each other condescendingly just as often, says Black, and older people can also jump to conclusions about younger people based on appearance. “The most important thing is politeness and respect,” she says. No matter how old you are.

Steps for confronting ageism in the workplace

Find the root. Past relationships influence how we interact with people, for good or for bad. If a young employee’s personal experiences with the elderly involve sickness or disability, those experiences will shape how that employee perceives older customers. Black uses simple exercises, like word association, to identify her students’ gut reactions to aging, and she says businesses can do the same in a workshop or company seminar.

Promote inter-generational connections. Black says part of the success at local Publix stores can be traced to the age range of the employees. Publix has a diversity of ages in its workplace, and it’s created a more tolerant, understanding workplace. When young people interact with older co-workers day in and day out, they build relationships and are less likely to view older customers as a stereotype.

Humanize the aging process. The more your employees are exposed “to the range of the aging experience,” Black says, the more likely they are to treat elderly customers with respect. She recommends sharing relevant stories or newspaper clippings around the office and highlighting older people who are healthy and active, so employees can learn not to judge a person’s abilities based on age alone.

Discuss and educate. Make this an ongoing conversation—especially with employees who have exhibited signs of ageism. Talk about where negative perceptions of the elderly might come from, and encourage your employees to challenge those perceptions. Many businesses also offer special training about the sensory and physical realities of older adults, which can help employees be sympathetic without being condescending.

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