A few months ago, a local TV news program reported the “plight” of a 21-year-old, disabled woman living in a nursing home here in Portland, Oregon. She “found herself,” the news anchor read from the TelePrompTer, “with an elderly roommate with no way out.”
Imagine the uproar there would have been if the anchor had said, “found herself with a black roommate with no way out.” But aside from my own email which was not acknowledged, apparently no objection was raised to this blatant ageism.
On page 4 of his important manifesto on elders titled, What Are Old People For?, geriatrician Bill Thomas notes that “[O]ld people are exposed to a bigoted ageism that is openly expressed and widely accepted.”
No kidding. I have pages and pages full of them on my computer.
Another eminent geriatrician, Robert N. Butler, who died last year at age 83, coined the term “ageism” in the 1960s. He defined it thusly in his 2008 book, The Longevity Revolution:
“Ageism takes shape in stereotypes and myths, outright disdain and dislike, sarcasm and scorn, subtle avoidance, and discriminatory practices in housing, employment, pension arrangements, health care, and other services...”
“It is identical to any other prejudice in its consequences...Anthropologist Barbara Meyerhoff speaks about 'death by invisibility' when she describes an older woman who, 'unseen,' was 'accidentally' killed by a bicyclist.”
Ageism kills more slowly too. In a live interview at the Washington Post, long-time Yale researcher Becca Levy discussed her study on whether aging stereotypes affect the health of elders.
“[W]e have found that when we activate negative age stereotypes, older individuals tend to show a decline in memory performance, self-confidence, will to live and handwriting,” said Levy.
“In contrast, we have found that when we activate positive age stereotypes we tend to find beneficial changes in these same areas.”
Negative age stereotypes are everywhere in media. With no effort at all, just my daily reading, I run across them constantly. When I remembered to do so, I saved them during 2010. Here is a sampling – about five percent of what I found. The emphases are mine.
Gabe Starosta at congress.org, in complaining about poorly designed government websites, had this comparison to make about the Social Security site:
“This site's primary audience is the elderly or those approaching social security age, and designers say the site looks like it was designed by those very same people.”
Oblivious to the fact that people 46 and older make up 44 percent of all internet users, Christopher Beam repeats this theme in a recent technology story at Slate:
“As of 2010, the most-common Caps Lock users are enraged Internet commenters and the computer-illiterate elderly.”
Old people, you see, are not only incapable of doing anything associated with computers, they are equated with rage-aholics.
The second most commonly repeated stereotype in the media is how elders dress, what they eat and when they do it – always with disdain. This is Eleanor Clift (who is old enough to know better) writing at PoliticsDaily:
"By 2050, the United States will look like Florida, with more old people taking advantage of senior-citizen discounts and enjoying early-bird suppers.”
How is this different from writing, for example, “...black people enjoying watermelon and fried chicken” which she would never write and wouldn't get past her editor if she did?
Two days ago, Dan Brown at The New York Times repeated the slam:
”On New Year’s Day, the oldest members of the Baby Boom Generation will turn 65, the age once linked to retirement, early bird specials and gray Velcro shoes that go with everything.
Don't for a minute believe Mr. Brown's use of the historical “once linked” will have any effect on the ubiquitous use of this derisive theme.
Ageism regularly creeps into stories at that supposed bastion of progressive thinking, Alternet, but this one particularly wrankled.
Because most Americans are born into a family faith, it takes of a lot of self-reflection, soul-searching, discussion and reading on religion, philosophy and atheism itself to give up belief in god. So much so, it is unlikely the young have any useful commentary yet. But Jenny McCreight seems to believe atheism's leading literary figures can be dismissed (along with gender and race) for their age:
“The individuals most commonly associated with contemporary atheism—Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Victor Stenger—are all male, white and, well, kinda old (69, 61, 68 and 75).”
Then there is young mommyblogger, Julie Ryan Evans, whose five short paragraphs about the arrest of a 73-year-old who had overindulged in the caffeine/alcohol beverage Four Loko, overflow with repeated sarcasm of casual ageism that taken together reveal her contempt for old people:
”Apparently the drink has crept its way off of college campuses and into the hands of the geriatric crowd...
“Now one could wonder if he just didn't know what he was drinking and the power of the stuff. The older you get, the harder it is to read the fine print and all...
“It's not surprising that the older set is jumping on the Four Loko bandwagon. Aren't they always chasing the train trend of the young?...
“But like all fad fascinations, their coolness typically comes to an end ... usually just when the older generations discover them.”
With the possible exception of Ms. Evans, there is rarely intentional malice in these writers' negative references to elders. They come about through laziness - repeating words and phrases they read every day - and convention; unless you grew up in China or Japan, you've heard old people maligned all your life without ever being told it is as hateful as racist and sexist words.
Language matters. And repetition, as every advertiser knows, establishes credibility and familiarity. With each repetition, the product, service or idea becomes more deeply lodged in one's mind until even elders themselves sometimes do not recognize, in the case of ageism, that the idea is repellent.
Such memes as computer-illiterate old people interested only in the early-bird special at Denny's are repeated hundreds or thousands of times year after year until they are no longer perceived as demeaning and become how old people are acceptably defined – along with the consequences mentioned above.
After a long list of the many different ways elders are regularly discounted in newspapers, magazines, television, movies, the internet, even greeting cards, Dr. Butler, in his book The Longevity Revolution, wrote:
“It is time to change the language and imagery of old age in the media and sensitize journalists and writers about the language of ageism.”
Journalists and writers will not do it on their own so in this new year, it is time to take up Dr. Butler's challenge. Instead of just collecting instances of ageist language for a blog post like this one, emails need to be sent to the perpetrators clearly stating the reasons for objecting to their language. Each and every time it happens.
Today, I am asking you to help. Send me the references when you see them – the quote and the URL to the article. Most often, they are in stories unrelated to aging. There was no reason for Gabe Starosta to use an ageist reference to make the point that the Social Security website is poorly designed. Christopher Beam could easily write a technology story without dissing elders' computer skills.
You won't have any trouble finding these – they are painfully common. Once you are sensitized to them, you'll see them everywhere.
Send a letter to the writer and the editor of the publication. In due course, I will publish a template you can copy and easily adapt to individual circumstances. During the coming weeks and months, I'll devise a petition or two for us to use along with whatever other methods occur to me; your suggestions are welcome and sought.
Back in the 1960s, the civil rights movement made the N-word unacceptable. The women's movement made the word "girl" so toxic that I once saw a reference in The New York Times to a “15-year-old woman.”
When language changes, behavior changes. So this year, let's follow Saul Friedman's dictum as related by his wife Elke in last Saturday's post:
"The thread running through [Saul's] work was always the same: make the world a better place as best I can. In newspaperese: “The journalist’s job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
This year, let's help make the world a better place and do some afflicting.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Kathleen Noble: The Day Mom's Hip Popped Out