Moving Past Ageism
Seniors are the fastest growing demographic in the United States, with the population expected to rise to 72.1 million by 2030.1 It is the demographic that is often ignored, or viewed in skewed stereotypes.
Our culture views the elderly as physically weak, child-like individuals who are incapable contributing to society; and, when we do hear stories of the elderly doing the things that are not deemed to be elderly-like – like getting tattoos, or fighting off home invaders, or bungee-jumping – we see them as extreme, off-beat, or even comical.
Ageism is the norm today, it seems. And that has to change.
What is Ageism and What Causes It?
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ageism as, “prejudice or discrimination against a particular age-group and especially the elderly.”2 In 2001, Duke University conducted a survey of 84 people, aged 65 and over, in which 58% of the subjects said that the most common form of ageism they experienced was jokes about the elderly, while 31% said that, because of their age, they felt ignored or not take seriously.3
According to research from Princeton, there are 3 primary causes of ageism: 1. the idea that high-paying jobs and social roles should go to the younger generation; 2. the idea that older people should act their own age; 3. the idea that seniors should not consume many scarce resources.4
Essentially, our culture looks and caters to the younger generation, while ignoring their parents and grandparents, and even ridiculing them for showing any semblance of vitality. It’s as if the elderly should simply move to the hypothetical corner of the room and stay quiet, while the kids live loudly and happily (until it’s their turn to go to that hypothetical corner).
Self-perception of Age Affects Our Health
Ageism may actually lead to shorter lives. A Yale University study of 660 people, ages 50 and over, showed that people with positive perceptions of aging lived on average 7.5 years longer than those with negative perceptions.5 The research also shows that the elderly who were exposed to positive stereotypes had better memory and balance.6 Of course, negative self-perceptions about aging produces the opposite effects.
This should be obvious, right? Feeling like you’re weak and worthless isn’t exactly the recipe for happiness. Being shown that you or a group you are associated with is weak or worthless won’t make you feel good about yourself. It’s a sad truth, but age discrimination leads to depression and stress.7
The epidemic has quite the reach — it’s everywhere. The media loves to make the elderly into victims, or grumpy old-men who are taught life-lessens by energetic teens. If the senior is shown in any other way, then it’s viewed as abnormal or funny. An elderly man who robbed a bank received much media attention, which coined him as the ‘Geezer Bandit’.8 Think of any movie or news story about a senior doing something un-senior-like: the story is always presented with a quip about the senior’s age.
Old Age is NOT the End
There are many myths about old age: you become set in your ways; anti-aging products will make you young again; you will become isolated; you will not have the intimacy as you did in your younger years; you’ll develop arthritis along with a batch of other illnesses.
The truth is that we can always change and learn new things, even when we’re pushing 90; we can be sick or healthy at any age. And, as far as social isolation and intimacy go, well they are the types of issues experienced at any age.
They say that ‘age is just a number’, and they’re right. Being a certain age does not make someone more or less worthy of happiness. Reaching old age doesn’t mean that we have to settle down, and live the rest of our lives in solitude. Seniors want to live a happy life just like any other demographic. Old age does not equal the end of life. Not at all.
We want you to imagine a senior citizen, but we also want to look at the photo below: does he match the picture in your mind?
- 3. http://www.apa.org/monitor/may03/fighting.aspx