Engaging Citizenship in an Ageist World

In 2012, Care Watch’s Social Action Committee initiated a participatory action research project funded by the federal government’s Social Science and Humanities Research Council.  The project examined Care Watch’s Social Action Committee’s reflections on how senior citizen advocates experience, understand, and resist ageism in our efforts to improve home and community services.

PAR approach aims at taking action

The committee used a participatory action research approach, unique in its emphasis on taking informed action towards social change. Our experiences and reflections were distilled into a series of informational materials (e.g., flyers, You-Tube videos, pamphlets, blog commentaries, and journal publications). The committee also gave presentations to senior citizen groups, academics, health professionals, and policy makers. A key aspect of the project involved experimenting with web-based social media tools, which resulted in the development of a Care Watch blog, twitter feed, and Facebook page.

What we have learned

First, we identified how ageism leads to the invisibility of senior citizens, making it vitally important to name ageism wherever and whenever we experience it. It is only by naming ageism that we can resist it.

Second, we have come to recognize that we live in a world where ageism

  • exists throughout our daily interpersonal interactions;
  • is reinforced through popular culture, the fashion industry and in the media; and
  • is evident in how our health care system allocates funds and how many health professionals interact with us.

With this recognition in mind, it is no wonder that we internalize ageist attitudes. We often seek to “pass” as younger than we are, knowing that old age carries a social stigma.

Reclaiming our citizenship

Finally, as with other social movements, we acknowledge the necessity to “name” ourselves and label our experience to reflect our realities, contributions, and the barriers to full participation that we face in a world created for younger bodies and minds. We need to characterize ourselves with a description that conveys our continuing role in society well into our retirement years. We advocate the use of the label “senior citizens,” not just “seniors,” because it denotes a socially valued role while “reclaiming” a term that has taken on a stigmatized meaning for many. While we acknowledge that this is a term not all senior citizens embrace, we welcome ongoing dialogue about the language we use to name ourselves and our lived experience.

The experiences and lessons learned from this project address the need for senior citizens and our allies to work together to challenge ageism wherever it is experienced — to become sensitive to it and to resist it. Care Watch members and our partners are invited to use the materials developed through this project and to disseminate them widely  through social media and face to face networks, at public forums and in education sessions.  We welcome your questions and ideas on how to strengthen our voices and to resist ageism.

Dr. Barry Trentham
October, 2015

Social Action Committee members:  Fern Teplitsky, Susan Thorning, Mary Ann Chang, Bea Levis, Charlotte Maher, Dick Moore, Josephine Grayson.

Co-investigators: Dr. Barry Trentham and Dr. Sheila Neysmith.

University of Toronto graduate student assistants: Sandra Sokoloff (Project Coordinator; Information Studies), Amie Tsang and Anahita Jabbari (Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy) and Stephanie Burdzy (Art History)

Peer-reviewed publications from this study:

Trentham, B. L. & Neysmith, S. M. (2017). Exercising senior citizenship in an ageist society through participatory action research: A critical occupational perspective. Journal of Occupational Science, Early Online, 1-7. doi: 10.1080/14427591.2017.1402809.

Using participatory action research, the paper analyses the experiences of a group of senior citizens living in a large Canadian city as they engaged in advocacy focused on home care services.  Key themes emerging from the analysis were naming, exposing and resisting ageism; identifying oneself as a senior citizen; balancing occupational demands in light of age-related changes; and social media as an exclusionary or enabling tool for advocacy. Contact b.trentham@utoronto.ca or sheila.neysmith@utoronto.ca to request a full version of this publication.

Trentham, B., Sokoloff, S., Tsang, A., & Neysmith, S. (2015). Social media and senior citizen advocacy: an inclusive tool to resist ageism? Politics, Groups, and Identities, 3(3), 558-571. Download publication.

View our series of video productions from the project.

Read the 1-pagers on Ageism, Naming, Passing, and Supportive home care