Fighting Ageism


October 22, 2015 by Jean

imageWe live in a society awash with negative stereotypes about aging. I have written about these negative images before (see, for example, Growing Older in a Youth-Obsessed Society). I see them as falling into five categories:

    • The assumption that old are incompetent and useless – in decline physically, mentally, intellectually, emotionally, and socially.
    • The assumption that old people are unhappy.
    • The assumption that younger is better, so that it is a compliment to tell an old person that they seem or look younger than they are.
    • The infantilization of the elderly. This includes the insulting way that many professionals and service providers talk down to elders, using terms of endearment and descriptors that they would use for children but never use for younger adults. I remember my dismay when I heard a staff member at the (mostly excellent) nursing home where my mother spent the last year of her life describe her as “cute.” My mother was a highly intelligent woman with a strong personality. She was many things, but “cute” was not one of them. The French adjective “formidable” would be much closer to the truth.
    • Although all elders are subjected to these negative stereotypes, an interaction between ageism and sexism makes them much more virulent for elderly women. At the Maine Summit on Aging that I attended last month, one of the speakers used slides with engaging graphics to illustrate what might otherwise have been a dry presentation of demographic data. The women at my table, however, were all distracted from the data by the sexism in a slide representing life stages. The graphic showed seven stages of life for males – a baby, a young boy, a teenager, a young man, a middle-aged man, a younger old man, and an older old man. The corresponding image for females showed only six stages, leaving out any image of a younger elderly woman. And where even the oldest man looked quite able and dignified, the female images went from an attractive middle-aged woman to an old crone bent double over her cane!


Earlier this week, a friend sent me an article from the Wall Street Journal by Anne Tergesen about the real consequences of negative stereotypes for elders. The article reported on the research of Becca R. Levy of Yale and her co-researchers. Theirs is an impressive body of research documenting the connections between attitudes toward aging and health outcomes. Their research has included many different health outcomes, and some studies have followed community health samples for years or decades. The consistent results were that those with more negative views of aging had poorer health as they aged. Happily, we are not just fated to suffer from our earlier attitudes. In a recent experiment, these researchers found that when elders were subliminally exposed to positive associations with aging at one-week intervals for a month, their physical functioning actually improved!

The Wall Street Journal article concluded that, for our own health, we must fight ageism, in the society around us and in ourselves, and suggested four ways to do so:

  • Educating ourselves and others to correct false myths about aging;
  • Learning to recognize negative stereotypes of aging in everyday life;
  • Emphasizing the positive aspects of aging;
  • Accepting the aging process and recognizing that it includes a balance of good and bad.


I was married when I was in my twenties, and when I found myself single again in my thirties, I came face-to-face with all the negative stereotypes of single women (think lonely old maid and bitter divorcee). I made a conscious decision to counter those stereotypes by being what I jokingly called a “militantly happy single woman.” (Years later, I learned that my positive presentation of my single status made a difference in the life of a divorced colleague.) Now I find myself charting a similar course with respect to aging. I realize that this blog has become a place where I try to present a realistically positive understanding of my experience. Many of the other bloggers listed in my sidebar are doing the same. As our big group of baby boomers ages, we have an opportunity to help ourselves and others by challenging and changing the stereotypes about aging in our society.


14 thoughts on “Fighting Ageism

  1. Dawn says:

    I love your outlook, Jean! Both being single and aging gracefully can be wonderful. I also look forward to the coming years. I will begin a new decade on my next birthday, and have been calling it ‘the dawn of a new decade of adventures!’ Thank you so much for all that you share, Jean. You always make me think! ♡

    • Jean says:

      Dawn, I love the fact that you’re celebrating that new decade! So many adults seem to feel that reaching a new decade is cause for alarm or depression. Your spirit of adventure is much more apropos.

  2. Kim says:

    Your voice is much needed and I’m so grateful for your writing here.

  3. pagedogs says:

    Oh, you hit a nerve with me here. Just two weeks ago I was with my 92-year-old mother in the hospital after she broke her hip (she’s doing fine). The caregivers there repeatedly referred to her and her husband as “cute.” As with your mother, my mother (and her husband) are formidable and not even remotely “cute.”

    The other thing that drives me nuts is referring to elderly women as “young ladies.” I’ve spoken up a couple of times when that has happened to say (nicely) that while the speaker may intend it as a compliment, some (myself included) find it demeaning. I’m sure they thought I was a cranky old crone.

    I, for one, am finding my 60s and retirement to be incredibly joyful and liberating. I’m embracing my age and will fight to be productive and engaged until they tuck me into that final hospital bed. Even then, I’ll probably be like mother, who kept trying to rip out her IV so she could go home. it wasn’t cute.

    • Jean says:

      Pagedogs, The ‘young lady’ thing drives me crazy, too. But I sometimes have trouble figuring out when to respond and when to let it go (I don’t want to go around in an angry funk all the time) and how to respond effectively. This research has convinced me, however, that I should respond more often, ideally in ways that will challenge people to question their own assumptions without getting their backs up. Maybe the next time some well-meaning man calls me a “young lady,” I’ll say, “Oh, no. I’m not young! Didn’t you notice my gray hair and wrinkles? I earned those, and I’m proud of them!”

      • pagedogs says:

        Agreed. It’s hard to know when and how to respond. I like your suggestion. The only time I responded to the “young lady” comment, was the first time it was directed at me. It was like being called “ma’am” for the first time. I have to say, it hit like a ton of bricks, “Yikes, I’ve passed the border from ‘ma’am-hood’ to ‘young lady-hood,’ I am now officially old.”

        I actually said something along the lines of: “I’m no longer young, but proudly and contentedly late-middle aged.” And I explained cheerily that I personally did not like being called “young lady” because it cheapens all those hard earned years under my belt. I told him I thought I’d say something because I knew he intended it kindly and likely didn’t realize that it might not be taken that way. He seemed to appreciate that I’d said something, but probably thought I was an old crank.
        If you try saying something, report back to us!

  4. Jean R says:

    I hate being called ‘cute’ and I know they aren’t talking about my looks but rather my personality. At one point I wondered if I wasn’t contributing to that old-perspn stereotype because I do have a self-depreciating sense of humor. I decided, no, that isn’t it. I’ve had the same sense of humor since I was a kid and no one ever called me ‘cute’ until I became gray haired and full-faced wrinkled. I enjoy making people laugh but it’s patronizing and lazy language-speak for younger people who either don’t know how to give an older person a compliment or they don’t want to bother learning individual names in the pool of elderly faces. The latter is particularly offensive because we see it so often in the healthcare field. Give me a few years when my old-person filter goes and I will the perfect come-back for the “you’re cute” line. I will reply, “And you are not.” Okay, that was mean. LOL

    • Jean R says:

      I wish reply boxes had an editing feature. Mine above doesn’t make any sense now that I’m thoroughly awake. I was using ‘cute’ interchangeably with ‘honey’ when it doesn’t fit the rest of what I was writing. Sorry!

      • Jean says:

        Jean, Both the “cute” and “honey” things are obnoxious and demeaning, so it’s easy to get them confused. I hate just taking this stuff without challenging it, but figuring out how to respond effectively can be tricky.

  5. I have been thinking about this of late….I hate the ads that make our aging wrinkles and such ugly and that they must be erased and changed. And yes we fight two battles….ageism and sexism. I was a happy single woman until 40 and only married when I was sure….I have many older single female friends who are happy….and others who if they become single again would not marry. I do agree that if our perceptions of aging are more positive we feel different. Good to remind myself to get rid of the negative stereotypes of aging in my own thoughts.

    • Jean says:

      Donna, It’s useful to see the data on how the negative attitudes end up being self-fulfilling prophecies for those who hold them. According to the WSJ article, being aware of the stereotypes in everyday life (like those stupid ads!) is an important step in liberating yourself from them.

  6. Sue says:

    I’m a little late in commenting on this posting (too much to do?), but wanted to weigh in. I do agree that there are far too many assumptions made concerning the “aging” population, whatever that means to the beholder.
    To some, you’ve aged considerably when you hit 50, some 60, some 70 and beyond.
    (Personally, I look forward to 120. And then, watch my wise cracks fly!)
    I was extremely negatively treated by a healthcare practitioner a couple of years ago and was appalled by her cookbook recipe “recommendations,” her condescending attitude and how quickly she shuffled me out the door, as if my concerns were paltry and “just like every other woman in her sixties.” (Needless to say, I walked out the door and never went back.) And she wasn’t the only one to have presented this attitude. Two others approached my situations in a similar fashion. I am fortunate enough to be able to be selective when it comes to the practitioners I choose to visit in the health care field, in spite of living in an area in which there is hardly a plethora of such. I will continue to be that picky as long as I am allowed. Others are not so lucky. Many of my female clients have been treated this way as well and due to health insurance limitations and other factors, they feel trapped. I’m certain it does not contribute to their feeling joyful or liberated. Kudos to those who honor the aging population and treat them with dignity. As for me, I am looking forward to every adventure the coming decades bring.

    • Jean says:

      Sue, So far I’ve been lucky with health care practitioners. The exception was the physical therapy practice I went to a year ago, where (although no mention was made of age) I did feel dismissed as a little old lady who didn’t need to be able to do things like strenuous exercise. The physical therapist I saw this year certainly didn’t have those attitudes. At my last visit, he was encouraging me to retry activities I gave up at an earlier point because of back pain.
      Your story of the providers with the condescending attitude reminds me of a story from the book Nobody Ever Died of Old Age. In the anecdote the author tells, an elderly man sees his doctor for pain in his leg and the doctor says, “Well, what do you expect? That leg is 83 years old!” The patient replies, “I expect it to feel just like the other leg, which is also 83 years old!.” 🙂

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

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