BEST BEFORE 4 MAR 1970: A Take on Ageism, Independence and Choice in Retirement Communities

Old people do not think clearly, cannot learn new things, do not enjoy sex, contribute to my community, nor have responsible jobs. They cannot drive, are in poor health and need help in getting around freely.

None of the above is true for the whole group, you could just as easily replace “old people” with “teenagers” or the “middle–aged” in the sentence. The earlier negative statement, title and picture however do reflect the cultural attitude of ageism in Canada. (1)

Today, I want to ask you: Do you consider yourself ageist? After reading this, you may answer: yes. But don’t worry, most of us do it unintentionally and with good faith, but it’s never too late to change.

And if you are the one suffering from ageist attitudes, give us your hand and let’s change this together!

For many people (including myself until not so long ago) ageism is an unheard expression, however it is a common-place attitude that victimizes and contributes to deteriorating lives of elder citizens in our society. It constitutes negative beliefs and assumptions that older adults are unhealthy, weak, mentally or physically impaired, less worth of being heard, only based on their age or age appearance. The result from such wrongful assumptions is that seniors feel they lose their independence, their right to make decisions, their place in society, their worth. Hence, it reduces their life satisfaction and expectancy., a fantastic initiative from Revera Inc, a leading provider of Retirement Communities and Long-term Care Services for seniors, discusses and counteracts ageism since 2012. According to their research, “1 in 4 Canadians—from Gen Y to Boomers—admit they have treated someone differently because of their age.” It’s shocking. Ageism is considered to be the most tolerated form of prejudice in Canada, but not less harmful to its victims than other kinds of discriminatory behaviours. (2)

Giving continuity to the project, Revera, in partnership with the Sheridan Center of Elder Research, has created a report to explore the perception of aging among Canadians and recommends actions that can confront ageism and that contribute to a better and longer life to senior citizens. To read the full report, click here.

We, at, decided to embrace the efforts of Revera to spread the awareness of ageism and to show what each of us can do to extinguish it, highlighting the role of residents and staff members in Retirement Communities to give seniors their right of choice and independence.

Keeping the Right of Independence and Choice in Retirement Communities

I have a confession to make. When preparing for this article and selecting who to interview, I was surprised to see that one of the contributors for the Revera Report was 95-year-old Hazel McCallion, Chief Elder Officer of Revera and Chancellor of Sheridan. Yes, I’m also ageist, I shouldn’t be surprised at all. Despite my self-belief that I consider anyone capable of doing anything at any age, I found that it was not always true. “I have to interview this woman, what an inspiration!” – I thought to myself. And she agreed to fit my questions in her busy agenda!

As the Report is very successful in providing recommendations for individuals, policy makers, organizations and older adults, our focus here will be how to address aging and ageism in Retirement Communities.

Revera got me in contact with Thomas Sturge, a 79-years-old resident of one of Revera’s communities. Mr. Sturge brought light to a few aspects of aging and how he thinks older people should behave to reduce age discrimination.

As Revera’s Report shows, Canadians consider independence important at any moment of life, but for older adults, it is a top priority. For Thomas, health plays one the biggest roles when it comes to keeping independence. “If an individual feels in control of its life – says Thomas –  they generally have a greater life satisfaction. So if you get someone who thinks healthy or stays healthy, then they can keep control, but once you are unhealthy, you lose control to doctors, or family, or friends. Maybe they don't mean to, but they start wanting to do things for you.”

When I asked Hazel if she could think of things she considered capable of doing but that she was refrained from doing, her answer was: “No, they don’t prevent me from anything. But I’m sure other seniors do experience it.” And she is right. Some forms of ageism come even from very good hearted people, that have only intention to help.

Thomas has revealed how family can behave in an overprotective way that could interfere with his independence: “Well, family is that way. I have a wonderful daughter, I love her like crazy, but when she comes to see me, she almost starts to treat me like if I was a kid. She's doing it from her heart, but she ends up trying making decisions, but when you start letting other people make your decisions, you lose control. And then I think your life deteriorates. I have a 98-year-old mother and most of the time my sister makes decisions for her, so I would think that the satisfaction level of her life probably is gone down hill. But I could be wrong, maybe she loves it [laughing]”.

Living in a Retirement Community can be tricky at times to keep independence and control. Most of facilities offer 24 hours DLA support. “I mean here at The Kensington – explains Thomas –  it's like living in a cruise ship, except there's no waves around where you are, so it's easy for me [to let others do things] if I didn't watch it, being the way I am, but that's because I work at it.

It requires will power and action to prevent itself from getting dependant from others. But also a careful attitude from management and other staff members. Treating people as individuals is a start. Not everyone requires the same care and should be encouraged to do as much as they can on their own.

For Hazel, “the staff in retirement communities and long term care homes have to recognize that the people living there are not helpless. They can do things and they can be independent, and they want to make their own choices. Staff have to realize that everyone is different; some people want to be helped constantly and there are others that really want to have their independence. It really does depend on the person. Staff need to see that people are individuals.” – and she adds – “Consulting the individuals who live there is the way to do it, because they’re all individuals. Through consultation you’ll find out that some people want to be helped one hundred per cent of the time and others want to do things for themselves as long as they can for as much as they can do. They have to ask the people what they want.”

Thomas agrees: “I find that getting somebody to help you, if you are the one asking for the help is a lot satisfactory-wise than if someone comes insisting that you get someone to help you. But I have to factor danger. I mean, if you have somebody who's falling, somebody who's got dementia... My wife has dementia, so she has to be taken care of because she's not able to control herself. But even then, people at the hospital try to get her to do things for her own. If you can do things on your own, you should be encouraged to do them. Retirement Communities can encourage independence by creating conditions for learning, maybe bringing some tutors to give free lessons on computer, or some of the new stuff, that's a good idea!”

And for his fellow elder citizens, Thomas has an advice: “Sometimes you do have to try to keep up with the world. I think seniors have to stand up for themselves and seniors have to do something about it [ageism]. When you are 10 years old, you couldn't do what a 15 or 20-years-old could do, but you developed habits, you went to school, you did the things so you were ready when you were 20. Seniors get to do the same, they get to not stop learning, because if they stop learning, the world is going to pass them by. I believe that old people can do whatever they set their mind to. But if you let the world run you over, guess what is going to happen, you are going to get run over.”

And continues: “It's easy for people to do things for you, but if you let people do things for you, you start losing control. And that's one of the problems I think with people when they get older is instead of doing less exercise they probably should do more and if they are already watching their waist line they should probably watch even then they are watching it.”

Both Thomas and Hazel have taught me something valuable, among many others: although society may try to tell you that you may not be capable of doing something because of your age, it’s ultimately up to you to let yourself believe it. Thank you Thomas and Hazel for inspiring us to change our views and attitudes towards elders!

To read the full interview with Thomas Sturge and his inspirational stories, click here.


(1)      Growing Old in Canada, by Tabatha Fairman in submission for SeniorsZen Scholarship Awards:
(2)      Age Is More: Research: Revera Report on Ageism: Independence and Choice As We Age:


Written by Eveline Pinto
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