Yoga glass
Seniors at a yoga class. Photo courtesy of Serving Seniors

When many of our great-grandparents were living in 1900, just three million Americans were alive over age 65. Today, this number is 50 million people.

In 2021, nearly six million of them were living in California — more than any other state. There are an estimated 636,000 adults in San Diego County over the age of 60.

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Many older adults live healthy, productive lives. But a growing number face long periods of unemployment, discrimination during the hiring process, and fewer professional development opportunities.

Combined with crises such as medical debts, divorce or the death of a spouse, the result manifests itself in poverty. This is without a doubt fueling the San Diego region’s homelessness crisis.

The most recent Point In Time Count found 30% of San Diego County’s population of homeless adults were over age 55. The Serving Seniors Needs Assessment report identified the loss of income or unforeseen debts as the most common causes of older adult homelessness. When people cannot find work, they face eviction, declining health — and eventually find themselves without a home.

Ageism Awareness Day is Saturday, Oct. 7. It has significant meaning to those of us at Serving Seniors who work with older adults daily, and see the pervasive, insidious effect of ageism on their lives.

Ageism is defined by the World Health Organization as “the stereotypes (how we think), prejudices (how we feel) and discrimination (how we act) towards others or oneself based on age.”

There are still significant negative representations in popular culture about older adults. Two-thirds of older adults said they regularly see, hear, or read insulting jokes about older people. Discrimination based on age can be so pervasive it goes unrecognized.

Be honest with yourself. Have you joked about older adults being hopeless with technology, or laughed about having a “senior moment?”

Ageism is no joke. According to a comprehensive 2023 survey of older workers and employment by AARP,

  • More than 40% of workers over the age of 40 say they’ve experienced age discrimination at work in the last three years.
  • Workers over the age of 50 are unemployed for three times as long as younger workers because of ageism barriers.
  • In a ZipRecruiter study, 47% of employers worry about older workers’ tech skills. One in four say they’d hire a 30-year-old over a 60-year-old when both candidates are equally qualified.

When someone loses a job at age 55, they often lose their health insurance as well. The inability to become re-employed begins a downward spiral of economic distress, sometimes resulting in eviction and homelessness.

When older adults access Social Security early at age 62, the average monthly payment of $1,782 at age 65 drops by 30% to just $1,247.40. Who can cover their living expenses in San Diego on this? Further, Medicare isn’t available for anyone until they turn 65.

After working with older adults for three decades in my role as CEO of Serving Seniors (and aging into this population group myself), ageism is nothing short of an epidemic.

When an older adult loses a job, it’s often difficult if not impossible to replace their employment after age 50, especially in youth-oriented professions like information technology or marketing.

Many clients we assist at Serving Seniors are experiencing homelessness precisely because of these issues. They were once vibrant, productive professionals. Suddenly, they are shocked to find themselves without resources.

Ageism is without a doubt a contributor to their circumstances. Ageism denies hundreds of thousands of people employment opportunities, the ability to be economically self-sufficient, and accurate representation in our culture.

By 2030, one in four San Diegans will be 60 or older. Maybe you’ll be one of them. Ageism could affect your own health, longevity, and financial well-being. It hurts San Diego’s economy as a whole as we continue to fight our homelessness crisis. The cure is far more expensive than prevention.

On Ageism Awareness Day, consider for a moment how you’d like to be treated when you’re older. California psychologist Todd Nelson calls ageism “a prejudice against our future self.” Ageism is a form of discrimination facing all of us if we’re fortunate to live long enough unless we take steps to stop it now.

Paul Downey is CEO of Serving Seniors, a San Diego-based nonprofit that helps seniors in poverty live healthy and fulfilling lives.