04/23/2013 05:16 EDT | Updated 06/23/2013 05:12 EDT

Facebook Reveals our Lack of Compassion for the Elderly


"Anyone over age 69 should face a firing squad."

This was just one of the many Facebook comments ridiculing the elderly cited in a recent Yale University study that reveals extensive bigotry and discrimination levelled at older adults on the popular social networking site.

Ageism, to give the offensive language a civil gloss, is a far too common occurrence on Facebook, the study found.

This may seem hard to believe for many people. After all, most of us have older people in our lives -- our grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbours or community members -- and we'd never wish them harm.

But discrimination on the basis of age is a daily occurrence for many seniors.

First, there are the systemic disadvantages -- those things not intended to discriminate, but that were never designed with seniors in mind, thus indirectly making life difficult for them. Let's face it, the world is designed for younger people, and so crosswalk and traffic lights often turn too fast, cash register numbers are too hard to read, and people are increasingly saying things far too fast and too low to understand.

If you think it's aggravating being the person in line behind a senior or waiting for a senior to exit the crosswalk, imagine how frustrating it is for the senior him/herself.

But then there is outright discrimination against seniors. A recent report by Revera and the International Federation on Ageing found that 63 per cent of Canadians aged over 66 say they have been treated unfairly on the basis of their age. More worrying still is that 79 per cent of Canadians agree that seniors over the age of 75 are seen as less important than others in society, and a full 21 per cent believe older people are a burden on our society.

We are facing a huge increase in the population of seniors across the country over the next two decades as their ranks swell. So now may be a good time to challenge ageism head-on in all of our public spaces, and even our virtual ones.

When you think about it, aging is really a moving target -- age 65 is the new 55. This is more than a mindset -- it's a reality. Many seniors today will live more than 30 years after the traditional age of retirement, and many won't retire at all. So it may be more appropriate to think of the senior years as a 'second adulthood,' and there's is no doubt that individuals going into their 'second adulthood' today still have much to contribute to society.

What we need to do now is to re-evaluate how we, as a society, think about ageing and about older adults. This should be a national conversation.

Ageism is an extremely interesting and unique method of discrimination. As opposed to racism or sexism, ageism is something that most people will be at risk of at some point in their lives. Most people, with luck and healthy living, will get old. So eventually they will morph into the very people they discriminate against.

Perhaps it is this recognition that drives the virulence of some of the comments made about older people. The fear that is staring us in the face is our own future.

For Facebook, eliminating ageism is an easy fix. A small addition to the Community Standards guidelines for the social media giant -- along with monitoring for infractions -- would address the issue.

For the rest of us, however, ageism demands a bit more reflection and self-awareness. The next time we find ourselves aggravated by a slower elderly driver or a senior fumbling for the right change at the cashier, patience should be our mantra. See the person beyond the wrinkles, and try to show a little compassion.

And hope that someone in the future provides that same courtesy to you one day.

Arlene Adamson is the CEO of Silvera for Seniors, a non-profit organization which provides a home to over 1,500 lower-income Calgary seniors. She is also co-chair of the Seniors and Special Populations Sector Housing Committee, and on the steering committee for the province of Alberta's Housing Access Link.

Social Media 101