Friedman Center Addresses Ageism in Academia and Beyond

Faculty; Public Health; Social Work

When universities focus on issues such as sexism and racism as part of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion efforts, there’s frequently one “ism” that is left behind: Ageism. Now, a team led by the Brown School’s Nancy Morrow-Howell is making headway in its campaign to include ageism — discrimination, prejudice and stereotyping based on age — at DE&I programs at Washington University and other schools around the nation. Based at the Harvey A. Friedman Center on Aging, the team is continuing its work developing the age-inclusive initiative WashU for Life at the university.

“We started working on how ageism could be addressed here,” said Morrow-Howell, the director of the Center for Aging and the Betty Bofinger Brown Distinguished Professor of Social Policy at the Brown School. The Center is organizing classroom teaching, workshops, research and resources.

Founded in 1998 and based at the Institute for Public Health, the Center has been a university-wide resource for education and research on aging, and hosts the annual Friedman Lecture and Awards, bringing nationally recognized leaders in the field of aging to Washington University. Morrow-Howell is part of the Gerontological Society of America’s Age Inclusivity in Higher Education workgroup. Washington University is a member of the Age-Friendly University Global Network. Under her leadership, the Friedman Center is currently focusing on age diversity and age inclusion in higher education.

The first victory for this effort at Washington University was snagging a breakout session that featured age as a diversity factor last spring at the Day of Dialogue and Action put on by the Academy of Diversity Equity and Inclusion. “We had been working with the Academy for a while to find ways to focus more on age and age inclusivity, so this opened the door for that a little more,” said Natalie Galucia, the Center’s manager. “Then we were able to develop it further and offer the workshop through Learn@Work for all WashU employees and plan to now make that an ongoing offering each semester.”

Nancy Morrow-Howell
Nancy Morrow-Howell

“We’re trying to develop an awareness and understanding about how aging fits into diversity and equity,” Galucia said. “It’s just getting people thinking about this stuff. Negative thoughts about aging are so ingrained. It’s something we accept, we live with it. Exposing how it hurts people has been our mission.”

The Friedman Center has also supported “When I’m 64,” a class for freshmen that exposes them to personal and professional aspects of long life and aging societies; and the course helps young people understand ageism – including stereotypes of young people – to point out that discrimination against older people will someday affect them. “We tell them that you’re discriminating against your future self,” Morrow-Howell said. Some 10-20 older adults also take the course, and both age groups learn from each other.

The Center’s research has included focus groups about WashU career services and admission staff to elucidate the challenges and opportunities of an age-diverse student body. Galucia said this work has succeeded in opening the eyes of people, with many responding “I never realized that.” The team is currently conducting focus groups with DE&I representatives from universities all over the country. “We’re talking to them about where they see age, where they think age fits in the DE&I spectrum,” said Morrow-Howell, the recent recipient of the 2022 Maxwell A. Pollack Award for Contributions to Healthy Aging from The Gerontological Society of America. The response is too often “Age is a thing but it’s not a priority,” she said. The team hopes to increase awareness that age intersects with all other identities and that age discrimination threatens social justice for everyone who lives long enough.

The team is also working through the classroom, offering a new specialization for students on Older Adults and Aging Societies. The specialization emphasizes diverse perspectives on aging and social justice through its courses, which offer practical experience in working on those issues.

A unique skill set 

Jesse L. Herman Jr.
Jesse L. Herman Jr.

Jesse L. Herman Jr., MSW ’19, took the specialization (then a concentration) and said it gave him more understanding about aging issues while offering vital training for his current work for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs as a home-based primary care social worker in Sumter, South Carolina. There, he coordinates a primary care team for homebound veterans.

“The courses gave me a unique skill set that most social workers don’t have,” he said. “I understand how to aggregate resources for older adults, and that’s a skill set I learned at the Brown School.” The doctor in charge of the team was aware of the Brown School’s reputation, which Herman says helped him get his job.

Herman, a 24-year Army retiree, was 42 when he started his undergraduate degree at Maryville University and 47 when he got his MSW from the Brown School, so he faced the challenges of being an older student in the classroom. “It was extremely uncomfortable for me at first,” he said. In the Army, he served in the Field Artillery and worked exclusively with men. At the Brown School, his classmates were predominantly young women. Both he and his classmates adjusted and wound up learning from each other, he said. “People don’t care about what you know until they realize how much you care,” he added.

Herman’s interest in aging issues started in the Army, where his nickname was “Old School.” Near the end of his Army career, he went through chemotherapy and his recovery group included patients who were much older than him. “As we started talking about life, you hear about the issues, the problems, and the barriers to care that they faced. I thought, ‘This is something I can help with.’” While working on his undergraduate degree, he worked in the St. Louis community with older people, many homeless.

Morrow-Howell recruited him for the Brown School and he recalled a long conversation with her about the blind spot that academia has when it comes to older adults, especially veterans. “She shared that we would have the opportunity to explore those things and develop ways to address those blind spots,” he said. Herman was sold.

Seminars on ageism reach large audience

The team has prepared a presentation on ageism that was initially given through the Center’s Issues in Aging Seminar series, which attracts a broad audience of WashU faculty, staff, students and community members. It’s since been adapted for other audiences as an introduction to issues surrounding ageism.

In the presentation, Morrow-Howell said that while she’s always argued for the need to focus on programs and policies, there’s also a need to focus on individual attitudes about aging. “Attitudes about older adults and ageism have profound effects,” she said. “We could have great employment policies, but if employers or supervisors devalue and discriminate against older workers, negative outcomes still exist. Transformations in higher education are also thwarted by ageism.”

Young people in particular need to be alert to the dangers of ageism that can apply to people of all ages, Morrow-Howell said. “Unlike other ‘isms’, ageism in later life is something everyone will face,” she said. The presentation includes videos of both old and young talking about age stereotypes “You’ll understand when you’re older” or “You’re having a senior moment” or birthday cards poking fun at older people. “We love to laugh about those cards, but would we do this with any other group in this country?” Morrow-Howell said. She noted that ageism overlaps with other forms of discrimination, increasing its negative impact, with older people of color experiencing a disproportionate share of challenges.

The COVID pandemic disparately affected older people, many of whom were sequestered from other parts of society because they were at greater risk. COVID itself became a topic for ageist names like “Boomer Removers,” Morrow-Howell said, while older workers were ushered out of their jobs due to COVID and then found it harder to get rehired.

She said that while there are undeniably downsides to getting older, they’re only a part of aging and don’t apply in the same way to everyone. “We tend to lump all older people into one monolithic group and then focus on the negative.,” she said. “We need to recognize the great variability in health, functioning and preferences in the older population, and we need to tell the whole story about aging.”

The Friedman Center’s website has a resources page for those interested in more information about what the center and various groups in St. Louis, Missouri, the U.S. and around the world are doing to increase knowledge about and combat ageism.