In his forward to the Encyclopedia of Ageism, gerontologist Robert N. Butler writes:
“I first confronted ageism in medical school. We were not taught much about older people, and, indeed, basic knowledge of human aging was minimal. I was shocked at the medical lexicon concerning older persons, abounding as it did with cruel and pejorative terms, such as crock...
Ageism, of course is not isolated within the medical culture. It is pervasive, gross and subtle, and omnipresent.” [emphasis added]
That last sentence cannot be emphasized enough. So common are subtle ageist references that hardly anyone notices the hundreds, perhaps thousands that appear in various media each day. I had intended to hold off writing this piece until I had 15 or 20 examples, but that would be painfully redundant to read. Five will do, four from The New York Times which I read first thing in the morning when my mind is fresh and easily catches ageist lapses:
Columnist Frank Rich:
“But the former party of Lincoln and liberty has now melted down to a fundamentalist core of aging, rural Dixiecrats and intrusive scolds...”
Lloyd Braun quoted by reporter Brooks Barnes:
“We didn’t want to be nasty, and we didn’t want to be your grandmother’s take on celebrity,”
Columnist David Pogue quoting a reader of his Twitter feed:
“...at least one person has carefully compiled a list of the 99 videos he thinks you need for a basic education (as he puts it, 'unless you're a loser or old or something').”
Book reviewer Janet Maslin:
“Mr. Leonard, now 83, still writes with high style, great energy, unflappable cool and a jubilant love of the game.”
So in the space of four sentences from a variety of what are undoubtedly normal, ordinary, nice people, elders are subtlely and gratuitously maligned - in passing while discussing something else - to be political fundamentalists, scolds, sickly sweet, losers and surprisingly able to “still” write a good story at an advanced age.
These may seem like small indiscretions not worth mentioning, but when we are bombarded with them every day in all media, they are effective in perpetuating the stereotypes of age. Even thirdage.com, supposedly targeting readers in the third and last age of life, consistently undermines elders with messages promoting the preservation of youth by any means:
“We can slow the clock by maintaining good health habits, and we can also take advantage of cosmetic surgery to keep ourselves looking youthful.”
Why are old people so widely and frequently stigmatized? Because people have heard these disparaging remarks nearly every day from the cradle and since hardly anyone objects, assume they are acceptable. Repetition dulls critical thinking so when old women are repeatedly referred to, for example, as old bags, people believe it's okay.
One way I've tried, in the past, to demonstrate the offensiveness of ageist speech is to apply The TGB Bias Test which substitutes racial or gender references in place of the original ageist ones. Let's give it a whirl on the quotations above:
• “a fundamentalist core of
aging female, rural Dixiecrats and intrusive scolds...”
• “we didn’t want to be your
grandmother’s black person’s take on celebrity”
• “unless you're a loser or
old a woman or something”
• “Mr. Leonard,
now 83 who is black, still writes with high style”
• “take advantage of cosmetic surgery to keep ourselves looking
Ridiculous? Of course. Offensive? Definitely. They would not get past the editor's blue pencil as the original references did; but no one notices when the words refer to age.
Many people, including some elders, dismiss ageism as not on a par with racism and sexism, but I believe it is not only equal, it affects more people because everyone, no matter their race or gender, gets old.
Ageism is also harmful to our health as Yale psychology professor, Becca Levy, has shown in numerous studies. In one, she and her colleagues tried
“...a method that was used to study the effects of stereotypes about race and gender. The idea is to flash provocative words too quickly for people to be aware they read them.
“In her first study, Dr. Levy tested the memories of 90 healthy older people. Then she flashed positive words about aging like 'guidance,' 'wise,' 'alert,' 'sage' and 'learned' and tested them again. Their memories were better and they even walked faster.
“Next, she flashed negative words like 'dementia, 'decline,' 'senile,' 'confused' and 'decrepit.' This time, her subjects' memories were worse, and their walking paces slowed.”
- - The New York Times, 5 October 2006
Writing in the Encyclopedia of Ageism, Professor Levy notes,
“Ageism operates on two levels: conscious (aware, controlled, or explicit) and unconscious (unaware, automatic, or implicit). Both levels apply to the targets as well as the targeters. That is, individuals can perpetuate ageism or be victimized by it, whether or not they are aware of the process.”
I am inclined to believe that the subtle and consistently negative media stereotyping of elders is due to unconscious ageism instilled and repeated from childhood which makes it hard to counter. The only way I know is to point it out – again and again and again and...
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Lyn Burnstine is thinking about gray hair in her poem, Silver Threads.