• QASP

Ageism, Active Ageing and Age-Friendly Communities

Robert Butler, a gerontologist who was the first director of the National Institute on Aging in United States of America, coined the word “ageism” as the “process of systematic stereotyping or discrimination against people because they are old, just as racism and sexism accomplish with skin colour and gender” (as cited in Butler, 1975, in Cohen, 2001).

Ageism refers to discrimination based on age and to the existence of stereotypes, prejudices or preconceived images about old age and ageing. This can cause the exclusion of older people by society, but also their own self-exclusion, by internalizing these stereotyped and pre-configured ideas about that process and that stage of life, and by incorporating them into the image they have of themselves and their ageing.

The importance and consideration of reversing these trends are in the basis of challenge 7, raised in the “Active ageing: a policy framework” document by the World Health Organization (WHO, 2002), where it is about developing a new image and more positive of the aging process and the older persons. Along the same lines, the “World report on ageing and health” (WHO, 2015) warns that these age stereotypes have an important influence on policies and behaviours, thus making it necessary to fight against discrimination through campaigns of sensitization that improve knowledge about aging and help forging a more real, diverse and adequate image of it. From a local and urban perspective, this challenge is also addressed in the plan for Global Age-Friendly Cities Project (WHO, 2007). Precisely, “Respect and social inclusion” is one of the thematic areas that structure this model.

The Program of R&D Activities ENCAGEn-CM(1) ( has as one of its objectives to analyze the self-image of the elderly taking into account their different residential contexts (family dwelling, collaborative housing and nursing homes). For this, the discourses obtained from in-depth interviews and focal groups carried out in the qualitative field work developed by the ENCAGE-CM(2) Program and the ENVACES(3) Project in 2017, were analysed. In total, 58 interviews to elderly people residing in their family home and co-housing and 6 focal groups with users of Senior Centres and with persons who live in nursing homes.

Differences in the older adults’ images build about themselves have been found according to residential settings. Those who live in a nursing home consider themselves as less competent and isolated, being more aware of their own limitations and dependency, so they feel as a burden for their family. They usually refer taking part in activities looking to distract themselves instead of enhancing their personal development. It has also been found that they have more stereotyped attitudes and images towards older persons as a social group. Older adults who live in family dwelling, if they collaborate or participate at Senior Centres o similar places, seem to have a self-image more associated to self-fulfilment; they consider themselves more competent and, although they assume this life course stage as more solitaire, they try to ease the isolation participating in diverse activities. They also identify better the stereotypes towards older persons that society usually articulate. Among those who live in family dwelling, but are not users of Senior Centres, a major feeling of loneliness and a more pessimist perception of their own ageing have been found. People who reside in co-housing build a self-image similar to those participating at Senior Centres, although they mention more their health limitations. Moreover, they refer enjoying the communal living, the communication and the sharing activities.

To participate in activities and to have inclusive spaces or citizens’ initiatives at hand (all aspects strongly connected to the “Participation” and “Lifelong learning” pillars of the Active Ageing policy framework) seem to have an important and great influence in order to develop a positive self-image. The development and promotion in public policies of three of the Age-friendly city topic areas (“Social participation”, “Respect and social inclusion” and “Civic participation and employment”) could help to improve the image that older adults have of themselves.

In conclusion, the population ageing is not a homogeneous process, but conditioned by the people’ traits, by their life trajectory and by the environments in which they live. Similarly, the older people’ image is built driven by social factors rooted in many social spheres, not favouring the valuation of the rights of the older individuals as persons and social agents. Society and public institutions are obliged to provide strategies to reverse negative images following legal norms.

The sudden appearance of COVID-19 can contribute to the reinforcement of the ageist images of older people within society, but also to a stronger role for the older population in critical health emergencies.


- Cohen, E.S. (2001). The Complex Nature of Ageism: What Is It? Who Does It? Who Perceives It? The Gerontologist, 41(5): 576-577.

- World Health Organization (‎2002)‎. Active ageing: a policy framework. World Health Organization.

- World Health Organization (2007). Age-Friendly Communities Evaluation Guide-Using Indicators to Measure progress.

- World Health Organization. (‎2015)‎. World report on ageing and health 2015. World Health Organization.


(1) Programa de Actividades de I+D “Envejecimiento Activo, Calidad de Vida y Género. Promoviendo una imagen positiva de la vejez y el envejecimiento frente al edadismo” (Comunidad de Madrid y Fondo Social Europeo; ref. H2019/HUM-5698)

(2) Programa de Actividades de I+D “Envejecimiento Activo, Calidad de Vida y Género” (Comunidad de Madrid y Fondo Social Europeo; ref. S2015/HUM-3367)

(3) Proyecto I+D+I “La construcción del Envejecimiento Activo en España: Autovaloración, Determinantes y Expectativas de Calidad de Vida” (Ministerio de Economía y Competitividad y Fondo Europeo de Desarrollo Regional; ref. CSO2015-64115-R)

Gloria Fernández-Mayoralas

Sofía Gabino Fernández

Vicente Rodríguez Rodríguez

Research Group on Ageing at Spanish National Research Council (GIE-CSIC)

April 2020

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