October 22, 2015 by Jean
We 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.