Age Discrimination

Kevin McGovern

Like The Nathaniel Centre, the Caroline Chisholm Centre for Health Ethics is a Catholic bioethics centre. We are based in Melbourne, the capital city of the Australian state of Victoria. Every year, the Chisholm Centre hosts a one-day conference which explores a significant issue in health and aged care. On 7 October 2015, our annual conference was on ageism or age discrimination.1 This article reports some of the key insights from that conference.2 It has three parts. The first explores age discrimination. It defines what age discrimination is, and surveys some of its various manifestations. The second part of this article overviews important Catholic teaching about ageing and age discrimination. As we will see, as well as critiquing age discrimination, Catholic teaching offers a positive vision of ageing and the contribution which older persons can and should make. Finally, the third part of this article considers briefly some of the challenges which come to us from this discussion.

I. Age Discrimination

What is age discrimination?

It is hard to say when a person should be classified as ‘old.’ The term ‘older person’ is used to describe someone who is 65 years or older – an age chosen because in recent times it has been regarded as the retirement age.3  Older persons are further divided into the young-old (65–74), the middle-old (75–84), and the old-old (85+).4 

At the Chisholm Centre conference, Judy Gregurke, National Manager Aged Care Reform at COTA Australia, defined ageism or age discrimination as “the stereotyping or discrimination of a person or group of people because of their age.”5  There are positive stereotypes, but even these can be problematic. For example, elderly women should not feel pressured or compelled always to be “sweet.” That being said, in Western culture most stereotypes of older persons are overwhelmingly negative, and older persons are regarded as being dependent, frail and incompetent.6  These negative stereotypes are expressed both in negative attitudes about older persons and in negative behaviours towards them. Age discrimination predominately impacts upon those who are over 65, but it can also affect persons considerably younger than this.

Particularly when this is an ongoing experience, age discrimination can have a profoundly negative effect on older persons. They can internalise the ageist messages, and come to believe that they are indeed dependent, frail and incompetent. This self-deprecation, in turn, leads to poorer health, diminished wellbeing, and reduced mental ability.7  It can also diminish the older person’s motivation to be an active member of society. This in turn can lead to social isolation, which further diminishes the individual’s health and wellbeing.8

Research reported by the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2013 found that 71% of Australians felt that age discrimination was common in Australia. 35% of Australians aged 55 to 64, and 43% of Australians aged over 65 reported having experienced discrimination because of their age. This included being turned down for a position, being ignored, and being treated without respect. It also included service invisibility (as service people ignored them), relationship invisibility (as they were made to feel a burden in a relationship), and cultural invisibility (with people like them not being represented in popular culture).9  

Denigration, exclusion, and abandonment

There is a certain dynamic to age discrimination. It begins with the denigration that flows from negative stereotyping, whereby older persons are regarded as dependent, frail and incompetent. The logic is then that we do not need to include older persons, for such incompetent people would have little or nothing to contribute. This in turn leads to their exclusion from positions of influence, including employment (see below). However, it also includes the exclusion of older persons from important social, cultural and political decision-making processes and forums at the local, regional, national and international level. It even includes their exclusion from processes and forums which make decisions about older persons.

When older persons are excluded in this way, society as a whole is disadvantaged. Older persons have a privileged position in remembering our history. They remind us where we have come from, and therefore who we are, and where we are heading. When all this is forgotten, we can lose our way as a society. Our society suffers when this happens, and all of us are disadvantaged. Older persons are particularly disadvantaged when they are excluded from the processes and forums which consider their own care.

The ultimate outcome of the dynamic of age discrimination is the abandonment of older persons, as those who are already denigrated and excluded are denied the resources that they need to live a meaningful life. While this dynamic continues in society, any talk of legalising euthanasia and assisted suicide is particularly fraught. Might those who are already denigrated, excluded and abandoned ‘choose’ euthanasia as the only way out? Indeed, might euthanasia be the ultimate form of abandonment?

It must be stressed that there is nothing inevitable about any of this. Traditional societies usually have great respect for their elders. The negative dynamic has developed in Western societies because of choices which we have made. As our societies have become more materialistic and consumerist, a utilitarian calculus has taken over. This calculus places great value almost exclusively on economic contribution, devaluing all the other ways that people contribute to society. We need to remember that this utilitarian culture has arisen because of choices which we have made, and it can therefore be reversed if we make other choices.

Workplace discrimination

One place in which age discrimination occurs is the workplace. Older workers are generally experienced and productive, hard-working and reliable. However, persistent negative stereotypes lead to discrimination against them. A 2013 Australian report found that 1 in 10 business respondents had an age above which they did not recruit, with the average age being 50 years. Further, 29% of business decision-makers believed that older employees had difficulty adapting to change; 36% believed that older employees were less likely to be promoted; and 50% agreed that older employees were at higher risk of being made redundant.10

25% of Australian workers over the age of 50 report that they have experienced workplace discrimination. More than 80,000 Australians over the age of 50 are unemployed, and workplace discrimination is a significant factor in this. If only 5% more people over the age of 55 had jobs, the Australian economy would be $A48 billion better off.11 

In New Zealand, a 2014 Human Rights Commission report on the Ageing Workforce found that two in five (40%) older workers had experienced age related discrimination in the past 5 years. Similar proportions (46%) of workers (of any age) have witnessed it over this time period. The discrimination is most commonly manifested in the form of withholding interesting tasks, reduced access to promotions and bullying.12

Ignoring the contributions of older persons

Older persons contribute to the community in many ways. Most of these contributions, however, do not involve financial payment or the exchange of money. For this reason, the utilitarian calculus of the dominant materialistic and consumerist culture has difficulty in both recognising and valuing these contributions. In this section, we will highlight some of these contributions. Further, to prevent these contributions being undervalued, we will assign economic value to them.

Older persons provide a lot of care. Some are primary carers, perhaps of their spouse, a disabled adult child, or sometimes their own grandchildren. Many are informal carers, caring for family and friends, and particularly providing child care to their grandchildren. The economic value of the informal aged care provided by older Australians in 2015 was about $A60.3 billion. In 2014, Australian grandparents provided child care to 837,000 children. Indeed, they provided more child care than was provided by formal or paid carers. Older persons also contribute as volunteers. Without financial reward, their contributions often draw on a lifetime of skill, experience, and wisdom.13  In 2010, 2.9 million Australians over 65 were involved in volunteer work.14  In 2006, 5.4 million Australian volunteers (including many older persons) provided services equivalent to 454,000 full-time jobs.15  Older persons also provide peer support, visiting and befriending other older persons. When so many older persons are socially isolated, this is a very significant contribution which enhances what is called social capital.16

Moving beyond these merely economic measures, we should also recognise and celebrate important features of the contribution of many older persons. Many have reached a place of genuine altruism, where they are able to give without any thought of return. As we noted above, they are also able to draw on a lifetime of experience. Further, they are the memory of society, reminding us where we have come from, and therefore who we are, and where we are heading. This is of particular importance when older persons contribute to social, cultural and political decision-making processes and forums at the local, regional, national and international level. Finally, drawing on both their lifetime of experience and their early socialisation in a kinder and wiser time, older persons often offer us a more complete vision of life.17 These are very valuable contributions indeed.

Elder abuse

Sadly, we must recognise that older persons who can be denigrated, excluded and abandoned are sometimes also abused. Elder abuse is committed by someone with whom the older person has a relationship of trust, such as a partner, family member, friend or carer. It can be physical, social, financial, psychological, or sexual, and can include mistreatment and neglect. Its most common forms are financial abuse and psychological/emotional abuse.18 Data from the World Health Organisation estimates that 1 in 10 older persons experience some form of elder abuse every month.19

The victims of elder abuse are predominately older women, particularly those who are very dependent and socially isolated. Sadly, about 90% of perpetrators are family members.20 In the finance industry, elder financial abuse is somewhat ironically called “inheritance impatience.” It can involve significant amounts of money. For example, in the 2013–14 financial year, the Elder Abuse Prevention Unit in the Australian state of Queensland assisted 139 older people who together had lost a total of $A56.7 million.21 

In New Zealand, most research estimates that 2 to 5 percent of the older population may be victims of elder abuse.22  Age Concern reports that it receives more than 2,000 confirmed referrals each year of older people facing abuse or neglect.23  If, as estimated, only 16 percent of the actual number of abuse incidents reach service agencies,24  this means that the likely number of elderly people subject to abuse is greater than 12,000. A study of respite care patients and caregivers in England found that 45% of caregivers admitted either verbal (41%) or physical abuse (14%).25

II. Catholic Teaching

This is a necessarily brief overview of some of the more important Catholic statements about age discrimination. These statements, while critiquing age discrimination, also offer a positive vision of ageing and the contribution which older persons can and should make.

The best short statement of the Church’s positive view of older persons is perhaps found in paragraph 222 of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. It recognises the positive contribution that older persons can make in the workplace, in the family, and in all of society. It therefore calls everyone to pay “generous attention” to them, and to see them as “partners in shared projects.” It also calls us to care for the needs of older persons, particularly those who are most frail and most marginalised. It quotes Psalm 92 to present the Church’s vision and hope for all older persons: ‘They still bring forth fruit in old age.’26

Below, we will look at statements from the last three popes, along with the Church’s contribution to the UN International Year of Older Persons in 1999.27

John Paul II

On 23 March 1984, Pope John Paul II addressed 8,000 older persons who had gathered from the dioceses of Italy. He described old age as “a time of life which is humanly and spiritually fruitful.” He reminded the assembled older persons, “You still have a mission to fulfil, a contribution to make.” He stated clearly, “According to the divine plan, each individual human being lives a life of continual growth, from the beginning of existence to the moment at which the last breath is taken.”28  John Paul’s vision of old age is at once an inspiration and a challenge to older persons – and to all of us.

UN International Year of Older Persons

1999 was the United Nations International Year of Older Persons. It was officially launched on 1 October 1998, the International Day of Older Persons. On the same day, the Pontifical Council for the Laity issued The Dignity of Older People and Their Mission in the Church and the World. A year later, on 1 October 1999, Pope John Paul II issued a Letter to the Elderly. The Australian Catholic Bishops also contributed through their 1998 Social Justice Statement, which was titled The Challenge of Ageing.

The document from the Pontifical Council for the Laity is probably the most complete statement of Catholic teaching about ageing and age discrimination. It is just over 10,000 words in length. It has two chapters on the meaning and value of old age, with the first drawing on human insight, and the second drawing on the wisdom of the Bible. It has a chapter on age discrimination and the other problems that older persons can face. It has two chapters (the first general, the second more specific) on the Church and older people. Perhaps its most important sentence is the following: “The Church should heighten awareness of the needs of older persons, not least that of being able to contribute to the life of the community...”29

Pope John Paul wrote to his elderly brothers and sisters as an older person himself. An interesting feature of this letter is his analysis of the Fourth Commandment to ‘Honour your father and your mother’: “Honouring older people involves a threefold duty: welcoming them, helping them and making good use of their qualities.” He also advised young people that “older people can give you much more than you can imagine.”30

Benedict XVI

2012 was the European Year for Active Ageing and Intergenerational Solidarity. Pope Benedict contributed to this year on 12 November 2012 by visiting a home for the elderly in Rome run by the Community of Sant’Egidio. In his speech, he noted that society “dominated by the logic of efficiency and gain” often views the elderly “as non-productive or useless.” Against this, he insisted that human life even “in the years of old age... never loses its value and dignity.” Indeed, he recognised that “the wisdom of life” which older persons hold is “a great wealth,” and therefore that older persons are “a wealth for society,” “a value for society, especially for the young.” Prophetically, he stated, “The quality of a society, I mean of a civilisation, is also judged by how it treats elderly people and by the place it gives them in community life.”31 


On 28 September 2014, Pope Francis met with about 40,000 older persons and their families. He recognised that “old age is a time of grace,” and that older persons, particularly grandparents, “are entrusted with a great responsibility: to transmit their life experience, their family history, the history of a community, of a people; to share wisdom with simplicity, and the faith itself.” A people who do not take care of its seniors, he warned, “has no future.... because such a people loses its memory and is torn from its roots.” Rather confrontingly, Francis described abandoning older persons in aged care facilities as “actually real and hidden euthanasia.”32

Francis returned to these issues in his General Audiences on 4 and 11 March 2015. His first speech focussed on the abandonment of older persons and age discrimination; his second presented the Church’s vision of ageing and the contribution of older persons. In his first speech, he criticised a “culture of profit” or a “throw-away culture” which views older persons as a “burden,” and which therefore throws them away. He gave an example of an older woman in an aged care facility who had not been visited by her family for 8 months. Confrontingly, he called this a sin – indeed, he called it a “mortal sin” which could imperil our eternal destiny.33 

In his second speech, he insisted that “old age has a grace and a mission too, a true vocation from the Lord.” He particularly called older persons to prayer, suggesting that “prayer is the purpose of old age.” He also spoke of the “mission” or “vocation” of older persons to transmit true values particularly to the young. “How I would like,” he said, “a Church that challenges the throw-away culture with the overflowing joy of a new embrace between young and old!”34

These same themes are expressed in nn. 191–193 of Amoris Laetitia, the recent Apostolic Exhortation on the family. Paragraph 191 is about the abandonment of the elderly and age discrimination. Paragraph 192 is about the role of grandparents and older persons in transmitting both “history” and the “most important values.” Paragraph 193 warns that the “lack of historical memory” is a serious danger for any society. “Knowing and judging past events is the only way to build a meaningful future.”35

III. A Call to Action

There is something in this material to challenge each of us. If we are older, perhaps the most important challenge is to embrace this positive vision of ageing. This may require that we recognise and overcome anything within us which regards ourselves as older persons or the contribution that we make as second-rate or inferior. It may also challenge us to step forward to become involved in significant projects. It probably will ask us to ‘push back’ when we encounter age discrimination: for example, when a sales assistant serves a younger person before us, we may decide to say politely but firmly, “Excuse me. I was here first.”

If we are younger, one challenge is to ensure that older persons are represented in significant decision-making processes and forums. While this is important for every issue, it is particularly important for issues related specifically to older persons. In all cases, we may be surprised how much older persons have to contribute. Another challenge is to befriend an older person or older persons, and regularly to spend time with them. St Pope John Paul II reminds us that “older people can give you much more than you can imagine.”

Reverend Kevin McGovern was Director of the Caroline Chisholm Centre for Health Ethics for 9 years from August 2007 to July 2016. He is now a consultant at the Centre. He is also a member of Australia's health ethics peak body, the Australian Health Ethics Committee.


  1. For more on this conference, including reports and photos, our distinguished speakers and their PowerPoint slides, see “The Older Person Today: giving and receiving care,” Caroline Chisholm Centre for Health Ethics (CCCHE),
  2. I also drew particularly on another article written by a Chisholm Centre researcher, and I commend this article to the reader. For this, see Emanuel Nicolas Cortes Simonet, “Older Persons in Australia: Secular and Catholic Perspectives,” Chisholm Health Ethics Bulletin 20, no. 3 (Autumn 2015): 9–12.
  3. David Wiles, “Who is old?: defining old age,” Australian Journal on Ageing 6, no. 4 (1987): 24.
  4. Laurence McNamara, “Walking on Three Legs in the Afternoon,” (paper presented at the annual conference of the Australian Catholic Theological Association, Melbourne, 7–10 July 2016).
  5. Judy Gregurke, “Older Persons Giving Care,” CCCHE,
  6. Mary Kite et al., “Attitudes Toward Younger and Older Adults: an Updated Meta-Analytic Review,” Journal of Social Issues 61, no. 2 (2005): 241–266 at 245.
  7. Jennifer Richeson and Nicole Shelton, “A Social and Psychological Perspective on the Stigmatization of Older Adults,” in When I’m 64, ed. Laura Carstensen and Christine Hartel (Washington: The National Academies Press, 2006), 190.
  8. Jon Nussbaum et al., “Ageism and Ageist Language Across the Life Span: Intimate Relationships and Non-Intimate Interactions,” Journal of Social Issues, 61 no. 2 (2005): 287–305 at 294.
  9. Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), Fact or fiction? Stereotypes of older Australians (Sydney: AHRC, 2013), 4–5,
  10. Ibid., 8
  11. Gregurke.
  12. Lonergan Research Pty Ltd, "Ageing Workforce in the New Zealand Crown Entity Sector Survey Report 2014," online at
  13. Ibid.
  14. Volunteering Australia, State of Volunteering in Australia, 2012,
  15. Gregurke.
  16. Gregurke; Anne Gray, “The social capital of older people,” Ageing and Society 29, no. 1 (2009): 5–31 at 6. Social capital is “the array of social contacts that give access to social, emotional and practical support” within communities.
  17. Pontifical Council for the Laity, The Dignity of Older People and Their Mission in the Church and in the World, 1 October 1998, Holy See, The Pontifical Council calls these qualities the “charisms of old age.”
  18. “Your Rights – Elder Abuse,” Senior Rights Victoria, 
  19. Judith Ireland, “Financial abuse of seniors a problem for all ages,” 19 October 2015, Sydney Morning Herald,
  20. Senior Rights Victoria; Scott Pape, “The dirtiest, slimiest, most heartbreaking scam of them all,” 22 May 2016, Barefoot Investor, 
  21. Pape.
  22. K. Glasgow and J.L.Fanslow, "Family Violence Intervention Guidelines: Elder Abuse and Neglect", Wellington: Ministry of Health. 2006
  24. National Center on Elder Abuse, 1998, p. 12, in “Under the Radar: New York State Elder Abuse Prevalence Study,” May 2011,
  25. Homer and Gilleard (1990), reported in Acierno et al, “National Elder Mistreatment Study,” March 2009,
  26. Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, n. 222, 2 April 2004, Holy See,
  27. The Australian bishops’ 2016-17 Social Justice Statement will also explore these issues. It is titled A Place at the Table: Social Justice in an Ageing Society. I am honoured to have been invited to launch this statement in September.
  28. John Paul’s speech on this day is quoted in John Paul II, Christifideles laici, n. 48, 30 December 1988, Holy See,
  29. The reference details for this statement are above in endnote 16.
  30. John Paul II, Letter of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to the Elderly, n. 12, 1 October 1999, Holy See,
  31. Benedict XVI, “Visit to the Community of Sant’Egidio’s Home for the Elderly Viva Gli Anziani, 12 November 2012, Holy See,
  32. Francis, “Meeting of the Pope with the Elderly,” 28 September 2016, Holy See,
  33. Francis, General Audience, 4 March 2015, Holy See,
  34. Francis, General Audience, 11 March 2015, Holy See,
  35. Francis, Amoris Laetitia, n. 191–193, 19 March 2016, Holy See,