Massachusetts Attempts Near-Universal Health Coverage
Silver Threads - 4/16/06

Media Continue to Malign Elders

Crabby Old Lady is having fits with the media again this week, although this one has been sitting on her hard drive for ten days or so. For decades, ageist attitudes have gone unchallenged and now that the oldest baby boomers have, at age 60, become media darlings, everyone older is - deliberately or not - consigned to the role of doddering, drooling fools who were none-too-bright to start with.

“…the baby boomer generation is better educated, has more money and is more involved in their health care decisions than previous generations, he said.”

Who says pre-boomers are such dullards? Why, it’s Dr. Carl Eisdorfer who is, Reno Gazette-Journal reporter Lenita Powers tells us, “a national expert on aging.” Crabby does not mean to malign the doctor’s credentials as a physician or researcher, but is surprised that a man who has devoted his life to studying the health afflictions of elders would make such an ageist statement.

His first two claims are true in the aggregate, although not so individually. The third is questionable in making the common and erroneous assumption that lack of a college degree demonstrates lack of intelligence or wit. Crabby is glad, at age 65, that Dr. Eisdorfer is not her physician.

Compounding the insult, Ms. Powers goes on to quote Larry Weiss, director of the Sanford Center for Aging at the University of Nevada, as he repeats the doctor’s ageist twaddle:

“The current elderly population is more passive, so they walk into a physician’s office and he says something, they don’t question it. A baby boomer, who is more educated than previous generations, will go in and question a doctor’s decision, even seek a different opinion.”

With no other explanation forthcoming, Crabby can only assume Mr. Weiss’s definition of “elderly” - i.e. “frail” (which, however, does not necessarily affect one's mind) - applies to anyone older than 60, a prejudice Crabby fears Mr. Weiss is passing on to a new generation of his students. What was that song from a Fifties musical? “You have to be carefully taught.” Elder prejudice is taught everyday by repetition of ageist attitudes.

Ms. Powers fills out her story with an interview with a 59-year old fitness freak (six days a week working at pilates, yoga, weight training, cardiovascular and resistance training plus an hour-long session on a stationary bicycle) who tells us,

“’…I keep forgetting I’m that old so I keep trying to do things I did 20 years ago,’ she said. ‘That’s probably what keeps me young.’”

Nothing wrong with all that exercise if that’s what engages you, but "young" is not a synonym for "fit," and she proves that even elders unconsciously buy into the language of ageism - “young” is good, “old” is bad.

When interview subjects exhibit such an all-encompassing attitude of ageism, a reporter has a responsibility to note its pejorative nature. Ms. Powers does not.

What is most insidious about the ageism of this piece (and many others) is its subtlety. It masquerades as a positive story on growing old while dismissing nearly 50 million people older than 60. That leads to marginalization of elders and worse, less vigorously applied healthcare which is common when people are viewed as inadequate.

In its recent love affair with all things baby boomer, the media perpetuates the ageist culture by creating an artificial division - even antagonism - between boomers and their elders.

Crabby has harbored the hope that by numbers alone boomers would, as they age, create a better social climate for all elders. Instead, the media persist in extolling boomer youthfulness while denying those who are older the respect and dignity people of all ages deserve.

Ms. Powers (or her editor) headlined this story, “Baby boomers changing the way we look at growing old.” Not hardly, says Crabby.


True, oh so true!! I recall a physician that I worked with many years ago who told me that one day "geriatrics" (ugly word!)would become big business. He also asserted that instead of integrating the care of elders with the rest of the adult population, it would stand alone as another medical "speciality" to further secure a physician's role, read "job". Of course, it's happened & I'm in the middle of it! Dee

I had to laugh about the "fitness freak" feeling younger with all that work-out. I do a strenuous 40 minute run/walk on my treadmill, followed by weights and yoga about five times a week. It certainly energizes and makes me feel healthy some times. But more often than not rather than feel young from it, I feel all sorts of aches and pains I've never felt before. It reminds me of an interview I once read with Dustin Hoffman who says he takes 2 Advil every morning so that he can play tennis six days a week!

Who is the "fitness freak" kidding when she says we feel younger from all of that? Face your age, kiddo! And be proud of it too!

Great post, Crabby!

In the quotes substitute a minority name instead of elderly and see how racist this article would sound.
But anything goes when the media is refering to the elderly.

I converse with quite a few Teenagers and College students. It saddens me when they remark that people 30 years of age are old and anyone 50 should be dead.

At 53 I am hardly old or dead. I would seriously like to bean whomever IS teaching the youngsters to think like that.

I read the article which, mercifully, can be accessed, but having found the Contact Us, I just didn't feel like writing to the newspaper, especially eleven days after the item was published. Four of the nine questioned about When Do People Become Old? were teens!

Like minorities or any misunderstood group, we absolutely must know who we are, individually, and if society ever respects our many wonderfulnesses, that will just be gravy.

Let the media pander to the boomers, thinking they indeed have a bit of money, lol. I think I better go for my walk after all (dark, rainy, and cold). It makes me feel better.

The last time I saw a "geriatrics" doctor was when I was 26 and suffering from a pregnancy related hyperextension of the muscles in my neck. The only one they could figure out to get to treat it was a rheumetologist. I think I was the youngest patient he had ever seen... I've also had cataracts in my 40s (second youngest that doctor had ever seen, and took an optometrist, an opthalmologist, and finally a neurology specialist at Shiley eye center over 4 hours to diagnose), and I suffer arthritis in my neck from a car accident as a teen.

Geriatrics ain't just for "old" people. We all age differently, and some parts of us get old and wear out before other parts...

What a great post! The Powers article and Dr. Eisdorfer's views sure smack of more over-generalization under the cover of academia expertise.

I do want to emphasize my concern that jr. colleges, other colleges and universities may be unintentionally furthering ageism and ageist views, if Dr. Carl Eisdorfer, reported as a "national expert" is any example of views in gerontology programs.

We need to remember, they're training the people who are helping with the care of all of us, as well as the Boomers and the generations that come after them.

I hope the Boomers aren't buying into the misleading press that's out there about them. As much as they might like to believe it, they really aren't that unique from so many of the generations that came before them.

I don't happen to know any of these passive types in my older generation (am 70 yrs) that we're being characterized as, nor do I encounter but very very few in my daily professional interactions with multi-numbers of adults in the health care system.

Just maybe, the health care provider unwittingly fosters the dependency-type relationship with patients. Maybe the health care provider needs to empower, educate, encourage and assist patients to be more independent and responsible for their care.

Guess I would have to question any hypothesis formulated, study samples, research methods, variabilities, interpretation of results, statistics, reliability, and validity resulting in data used to support a characterization of people my age and older which contradicts my experience of anecdotal real life truths.

If any gerontology grad students stop by this blog who are looking for a project, thesis, or dissertation study, they might do well to investigate these issues, and set the record straight for us.

Then, just maybe, advertisers, marketers, public relations, human resources, corporations, government, media, educational training programs can begin to portray our older generation, and the Boomers, those coming after them, as we really are.

Hard to find the peg to pin comments on because I have so many reactions. I'm long past 50, and appreciate one of Crabby's earlier comments about the people who say "I don't feel . . . " whatever their age is, as though age were a feeling. I've never indulged in the frenzy of fitness machines, but am aware that a high level of activity goes with extraordinary good fortune in having good health or good genes or just plain damn luck. An older sister retired as a practicing physician a little after reaching 80; her husband, over 85 and having moved through several different fields of medicine, excelling in all of them and selecting gerontology as the last (it is, whatever we say, a growing field) is just now considering hanging up what is now a part time shingle. I don't know quite what point I'm making, except to echo the comments on the folly of grouping or labelling or discarding any of us for the simplistic reason of calendar years.

Millie is a hoot to read. I think that you had pointed us/me that way a few weeks ago? I check her out

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