A 1986 Salem High School graduate, Dr. Ayn Welleford, is fighting to disrupt ageism.
Ageism is discrimination or prejudice based on a person’s age. Welleford, now the chair of the Department of Gerontology at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she attended graduate school, recently declared April 22 as the “Day of Disruption.”
“Ageism is anytime you hold a negative value against a person because of age,” she said. “In a lot of ways it’s like sexism, racism and homophobia, because you’re categorizing people and judging them based on one characteristic.”
“The reason that it’s dangerous is because ageism has been connected to negative health outcomes,” she added.
Welleford said research suggests that those who experience internalized ageism, meaning individuals have low self-esteem due to age, can experience a shortened lifespan of around seven years. She said relational ageism is dangerous as well, which is sometimes perpetuated by health care providers who may possess negative ideas about the elderly.
“If your provider believes that because you’re older you are less than or you are unable to care for yourself or you shouldn’t be able to make your own decisions, then you are also going to be negatively influenced by those attitudes,” Welleford said.
“Probably the main reason people find themselves in the field of gerontology is because they have positive early experiences with older people,” Welleford said. “I have grandparents who were all very different from each other and played a strong role in my life.”
She is the daughter of Margaret Welleford and the late Dr. Paul B. Welleford of Salem. Recently, Margaret Welleford,75, moved to Richmond, and attended VCU’s celebration of the gerontology department’s 40th anniversary, decked in her “disrupt ageism” shirt with her daughter.
After graduating from Salem High School, Welleford was a CNA at what is now known as Richfield, which she said made her realize there is a lot of work to be done in the field of aging and changing people’s attitudes.
“It’s about realizing that it is a very positive stage of life,” she said.
She said that part of the battle is making people realize that the field of gerontology is not only an interesting field, but one that has many opportunities. Welleford’s job includes planning academic programs and identifying community partnerships that create engagement opportunities for students, with the goal of meeting community needs and improving optimal aging for individuals.
Welleford said she believes discrimination is often rooted in consumerism in a globally youth-centered society.
“In many ways, money is the main metric. If you are a financially productive member of the culture and physically strong, then you are valued,” she said. “Tie that in with youth and beauty, and older people are often seen as not possessing those things.”
Welleford said that instead of recognizing that there are tradeoffs at all ages of the lifespan, and that there are many positive characteristics that improve with age, in terms of cognition, wisdom, personality and emotional recognition, many tend to focus on the negatives.
Locally, there are several organizations that are committed to helping the elderly, such as the Local Office on Aging, which is dedicated to supporting the elderly and helping them stay independent as long as possible. Visit http://www.loaa.org/ to learn more.
“In many ways, ageism is a socially-transmitted disease, because we catch it from other people around us,” Welleford added. “Everybody could be a victim of ageism, because we will all become older people, hopefully.”