Ageism in America By John Baldwin, FLT Columnist
by John Baldwin, FLT Columnist
At times, life can be harsh for older people. Comedians joke about “senior moments.” Corporations downsize, particularly letting go of employees over age 55. Hair products press for covering up the gray, while anti-aging cream and Botox® promise to smooth wrinkles. Or, there’s the well-meaning conversation with the store cashier: “Oh, that’s OK. You don’t need to pull out your driver’s license or AARP card. I can tell by looking at you that you qualify for our senior discount.”
Getting older in America carries its own set of stereotypes and discrimination, which physician and gerontologist Robert Butler coined in 1969 as “ageism.” Ageism includes negative views of a person or group of people based on their age, but predominantly, ageism is considered prejudice toward older adults. Regardless of their age, most seniors stay physically and mentally active, but insults and generalizations about aging run deep in our culture, leaving many elders feeling disrespected and undervalued.
Some young people mock the older generation as slow and confused. Others talk past a senior as if the person were not even in the room. TV commercials often depict aging people as out of touch with modern conveniences and fumbling to keep up. While hit movies like “Grumpy Old Men,” “Gran Torino” and “The Bucket List” portray aging individuals as everything from cantankerous to cute, Hollywood films can perpetuate the view that older people are eccentric and fading into the sunset. Or, elders are only called upon to dispense mystical wisdom.
A Duke University survey of 84 people ages 60 and older reported that 58 percent of respondents encountered ageism when told a joke about older people. In the same survey that appeared in the journal The Gerontologist, 31 percent of participants reported that they were not taken seriously or were ignored because of their age.
Our culture seems desensitized to uncomplimentary comments and actions against seniors. Sometimes ageism is more subtle, like assuming an older person can’t remember things, and at other times, it can be more jarring, like labeling someone as ‘senile.’ We all are aging. And we can all use reminders to treat others with respect regardless of how many birthdays they’ve had.
Yale epidemiology professor Becca Levy and her research team have documented that a positive attitude toward old age affects older people’s recovery from injury and illness. Collecting data from 660 seniors over more than two decades, Levy’s team also reported that optimistic seniors lived an average of seven-and-a-half years longer than pessimistic folks. How others view and interact with a senior can add healthy, active years to the elder’s life.
Despite the prevalence of negative stigmas against older adults in our country, a number of individuals, groups and entire communities continue to counter ageism in America. Dr. Butler, who is credited with the term “ageism,” was the founding director of the National Institute on Aging, whose research and educational training works to boost the health and well-being of older Americans.
What can you do to combat ageism and help seniors live less encumbered by stereotypes?
- Pay attention to your own aging perceptions. Learn to look beyond the labels placed on older individuals. Be mindful that no specific age is considered “old” in today’s society. Learn to identify ageism language and unfair treatment of seniors.
- Celebrate older role models. Highlight older people’s contributions to society and how they positively influence all generations. Recognize a senior’s strengths and positive qualities.
- Foster a friendship with a senior. Anne Karpf, sociologist and author of “How to Age,” writes in the New York Times, “How to enable the growing numbers of old people to live comfortable, meaningful lives is a fundamental issue of equality, with benefits for all. If we make the world better for old people, we make it better for everyone, from stroller-pushers to wheelchair-users … Instead of seeing each other as generic categories, old and young people can discover each other as individuals.”
- Be an aging advocate in your community. Help employers rectify age biases in the workplace. Attend local meetings that represent the interests of the elderly, including intergenerational programs and improved access to urban spaces. Write a letter to the media. Volunteer at a senior center.
The movie “The Straight Story” rallies people to embrace older individuals for their continued ability to teach all generations about “seizing the day.” Viewers are drawn to 70-something Alvin Straight, who drives his lawnmower from Iowa to Wisconsin to visit his estranged brother. Alvin’s journey is a tribute to ingenuity, strength, compassion and resolve that perhaps can only come through years of life experience, proving again that the majority of American seniors are self-sufficient, productive members of society who will remain engaged with the world and with others no matter what jokes or misperceptions come their way.
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