ELDER MUSIC: Toes Up 2010
Healthcare Changes for 2011

Ageism 2011

category_bug_ageism.gif 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


Ronni, the number one a.m. English radio station in Montreal relentlessly advertises three things that upset seniors:

"Have you made your funeral arrangements yet?"

"Are you afraid in your home? Do you have an alarm system?"

"Does your house have mold?"

The majority of listeners to this otherwise great station are seniors.

The station figures seniors want to hear these kinds of ads, but NOOOO.

Mom and her friends living alone in houses, DO NOT wish to be reminded of death, nor do they want to imagine someone breaking into their home and hurting them.

They also don't want to think their house may be crawling with mold.

There is nothing positive about these ads. All the ad really says is:

"Get off the stage now. You're done."

"Move on."

Our local paper here reported an auto accident involving "an elderly woman of 61." It was written by a young man around 30. It shocked me as at 68 I don't think of myself as elderly. Many of the 60-somethings I know are still working, running their households and driving quite well. I did comment to the paper on my view that it seemed sufficient to state a person's age without the added commentary of marking her as elderly. I got no reply but haven't seen more of the same. I haven't quite figured out when I would think I was elderly either, much older of course.


I've seen a lot of similar reporting. As Crabby Old Lady and I rant from time to time, "elderly" is a description of condition, not age - frail or those with some form of dementia. But newspapers more frequently use it as you've quoted.

That's good stuff to know. I have a file I've been keeping for a future post that I've named Scaring the Sh** Out of Elders.

In the U.S., all evening and a lot of nighttime television is filled with commercials for the icky things that go wrong with us in old age.

I get further steamed when the ads, at the end, are required to list side-effects which frequently include death.

The one that drives me 'round the bend tells viewers that if their anti-depressant drug isn't working, they've got another one to use IN ADDITION to the one you're already taking. One of the side effects is suicide!

Advertising for midage and young adults is more frequently about products that are fun and useful. Well, maybe except for all those wrinkle creams and hair coloring that covers gray - that probably scares the sh** out of them about getting old.

Then, if they watch the ads for old people, well...

It's all ageist. They all want to scare us to death whatever age we are.

Great post Ronni. I will repost on FB. Thanks for creating the template that will get us all communicating about ageist reportage. Hope this is a wonderful year for you.

It has been noted many times on this blog that the constant message sent out is that growing old is something ghastly and to be avoided as long as possible.

Think of the gazillion ads for wrinkle creams, age spot removers, health clubs, etc. that send out the message that only young is beautiful and age is ugly.

You can't pick up a publication that doesn't have an ad lauding the positive message to stay young and avoid looking, or feeling, old. It's as if old age is a terrible state of being and to be feared. Our youth oriented culture is demeaning to elders.

There is an e-mail that goes around periodically with photos of young stars and starlets of 40 or 50 years ago with the contrasting photo of the same people as they look now with sagging jowls, love handles, and -gasp- wrinkles.

The fact that they have probably learned that superficial beauty is fleeting and there is more to a person than physical appearance is ignored.

Madison Avenue has perpetuated the myth that looking old is to be avoided at all costs. The 'not-so-hidden' message is that old age is bad, bad, bad.

The thing that you didn't pick up on though is that for both these people, the 21 year old and the 'elderly' person, the nursing home is their real home. They are nevertheless given no choice - either of them - about how they share, who with, or even if they want to. Maybe the 'elderly' person didn't want to be forced to share with a 21 year old either.

Good point, ian. Nursing homes are not "homes" for people who must be there, because the individuals lose entire control of even the most basic acts of life. Choosing a roommate would be one of those basic things.

The Jenny Mcreight article is very badly laid out, but I think the reference to Dawkinhs et al is a quote, not her own words.

Its hard to tell, because it relies on indents alone to identify the quotes and the ad box messes everything up.

A bit of old style graphic design would have helped.

Checked the original article and yes it is a quote.

My personal goal is to remove the word elderly from the lexicon. It just resonates "frail" and all other like associations.
And don't get me started on dear, honey, sweety, etc. I do, by the way, make it a point to tell any salesperson or waitperson who calls me by one of those terms that I would appreciate it if they would not. Sometimes they ask why and I tell them that it's patronizing. They are usually amazed.
But speaking of amazing, the outstanding "I can't believe she said that" occurred on Flagler College radio (St. Augustine) on a Saturday morning a few years ago. Often programming is delivered by community members but this morning it was a couple of students and they were talking about social dancing. And then the female student said, "It's really gross though to see those old people out there with their wrinkles and those yucky age spots." She actually said that on the radio. I could hardly believe the combination of stupidity and insensitivity. I was really angry, but did nothing because I was involved in a variety of errands, etc. But I was wishing I could at least tell her grandmother on her :).

Ah, afflicting the comfortable. Starosta's statement afflicts's me no end, but others you mention go right over my head. Yes, you are right that unless we take a stand nothing will change, and I see I will have to train myself to see the irritations.

Did I say Happy New Year?

Excuse me but I'm more concerned about the “plight” of a disabled elder woman living in a nursing home with a 21-year old.

Happy New Year!!!!!

Brenda V:

"( patronizing) treat with an apparent kindness that betrays a feeling of superiority : “She's a good-hearted girl,” he said in a patronizing voice. She was determined not to be put down or patronized."

They are probably amazed because they haven't a clue what the term "patronizing" means.

What really gets to me is when a clerk somewhere calls me "young lady". At 81 I am NOT young but I AM a lady.

I called the manager of our local grocery store when the cashier kept referring to my husband as "young man" So far this has stopped it.

I agree that language is important and it sometimes confusing to me. I can recall writing something one time referring to myself as an elder and thinking it was inappropriate later. I'm 57. I thought, "I haven't earned that title." And some people feel that the world suggests frailty.

Speaking for myself, I have a lot to learn about my own ageism because I have been guilty when I was younger of saying (or thinking) some of these same things that I realize now are clearly insensitive. Thanks for keep me on my toes on this subject, Ronni.

Just yesterday a 70 year old acquaintence of mine, slanting her story to favor her husband's recent traffic accident, inferred that the other party was a "younger" female(32)and less experienced. Truth is her husband was driving too fast for weather conditions. Shame on us fickel humans....

I have always rankled when much younger people call those much older than them by their first names. When I was young, I was taught to address those older than me by their title- Ms., Mr. etc. I cringe when the staff at the doctor's office, bank, and other professional businesses call my mother (or me) by a first name. It is a sign of respect to use the first name only when invited to do so. Are titles ageist, or respectful?

"“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.”

Actually, that would make for good UI design. Unlike my former gym, which once ran a newsletter article on fitness tips for middle-aged people in light blue ink on a tan background. I suggested to them that the message may not have gotten across.

I've surveyed quite a few health care websites, and I found Medicare's to be the most well-designed.

Really, I find it best to ignore the mass media. We're just another market to those people. They want to make us feel dreary so we'll go out and buy stuff.
I think the best thing about old age is learning not to give a damn what anyone thinks of me. As long as I get my way, I'm happy!

“sticks and stones……”

Sometimes I question the age old theory that age brings wisdom. The problem as I see it is not language or the use thereof, but rather the issue of political correctness verses compassion for our fellowman. I speak of the kind of compassion that travels down a two-lane road, not a one-way road. If someone addresses us with a word of little consequence and we choose to label it as personally offensive – that’s our problem, not theirs.

Compile all our individual likes and dislikes and I’m quite sure you could conclude that as a whole we could all never like the same thing. That’s why we invented another word called “majority”! Unfortunately even that doesn’t work completely because the minority seems to think it still has some say-so when the “majority” word is invoked!

I grew up in the south and the word “ma’am” is like the ‘holy grail’ of words when it comes to women and politeness. At least that’s what a lot of our parents taught us. Yet I have read articles, including some from the New York Times if that has some grounds for creditability with some of you, that some women are insulted when the word “ma’am” is directed at them. Some are offended at the word ‘grandma’ and some here have noted they are offended at the word “young lady’. Most, if not all of these type words have been part of southern culture and considered ‘terms of endearment’ for ages.

I am fast coming to the conclusion that given all the requirements being put on me with regard to the do’s and don’ts of how people want to be addressed in this day and time, I should just settle on a greeting similar to, “What’s up you old bitch?” That covers age, gender, and is direct and to the point!

The real, fundamental problem we're facing is not ageism or sexism or "whateverism". Instead it's the tendency of that large proportion of the population who generalize about everything. All generalizations are false. Elders are not uniformly - ANYTHING. There are some good, bad, smart and stupid. Some of us are fun to be with (some of the time) and some are not.
The media generalize about everything, all the time (How's that for a sweeping generalization?)
Let's all live by the golden rule: ("Don't do anything to anybody that you wouldn't be happy to have done to you)
and avoid all generalizations in the New Year.

I am with mythster, and let's include those difficult to love 'groups' such as Republicans, Southerners, tea party folks, and Muslims!!!

Maybe we need to work on getting rid of group think.

I am trying to think of a good response to a recent article in the Bay Citizen about senior evictions. We have rent control here in SF so these seniors, some of whom have lived in the building 20+ years, were able to afford their rent. But the old landlord died, the new owner is a speculator and is booting them to the curb. But do you think that the comments show understanding and compassion? No way, no how. It's get out of town grandma, you haven't earned anything and you don't deserve anything. So just die! It's utterly horrible. I did respond but mine was the only voice of compassion. The other comments are a cruel commentary on how our culture view poor old folks.


Thanks for such a good idea, Ronnie. I will keep my eyes open and hope you will continue to keep us posted on similar examples as you find them.


Friends. We are all united in our plight and fight against ageism. Democrat, Republican, Liberal, whatever. I'm a ripe old 63.3 years old and I'm shocked that people my age are referred to as "elderly". I think that Ronni's post on this subject superbly articulated the situation and problem. There is talk of class warfare but generational warfare is intensifying. It has always been here but now the economics makes it far worse. "They" don't want to see us and are doing "Their" best to suppress and usurp elder role/status/wealth/etc.
We become invisible in the process. I feel it, know that it is happening, and will soon reach the point when people will wonder how much will be left for them and when will they get it--I must ignore this fact and live on. In fact, I'm going to make certain I spend all my money starting today. I'll not worry about posterity; it's all about me and full speed ahead. Damn the torpedoes.


I have always admired your writing and appreciate this blog. However, I couldn't help noticing that one of your tabs under TCB Features is "Geezer Flicks." Geezer means "an old person, especially an eccentric old man." As a 60+ male, I don't appreciate the word "geezer" any more than 60+ women probably relish the word "hag." Changing ageist language is not going to be easy since it's so buried in our collective psyche. Moral: We who want to change perceptions of aging need to be vigilant with our own writing and thinking. We've had many, many years of conditioning to devalue aging adults. Dr. Butler also described ageism as "the fearsome thought of growing old." This definition, to me, says everything about the internal motivations of most writers who demean older adults with disparaging language.


I agree that the ads for old people are ageist and only deal ailments. I often have thought don't older adults buy clothes, electronics, food? Apparently not according to media. Conversly you almost never see younger people featured in commercials about ailments that are quite independent of age like diabetes and arthritis. It's always middle aged people and older. It reinforces the meme of older people being sick and frail. I think this needs to change. Ageism not only affects older people but yonger people as well.

Watching the critically-acclaimed TV series 'Breaking Bad' for the first time. In episode two we have a reference by the character Jesse (played by Aaron Paul) to "changing my Granny's diapers" and in episode three, the character played by Marie Schrader (who works in a hospital) is commenting on a pair of white shoes she is wearing and says "I look like I should be serving soup to some disgusting old person".

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