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Our Ageist Media – Part 1 of 2

Hardly anyone takes ageism seriously – most particularly the daily media: magazines, newspapers, television and video both online and off.

Long time readers of this blog know that I regularly write about ageism and ageist language and I realized it has been too long since my last foray when I received an email from Marc Leavitt, a retired newspaper editor, who contributes to The Elder Storytelling Place and blogs at Marc Leavitt's Blog:

In his note, Marc referred me to a story about aging at The New York Times where the lead sentence ended with, “...the slow, mysterious process that turns children to codgers.”

”Their choice [of codger] pissed me off,” wrote Marc. “I thought about a Letter to the Editor, but as a knowledgeable newsman, I know what that would get me, so I decided to vent by emailing you...

“Merriam Webster lists 20 synonyms for 'codger,' including: 'crackpot, crank, fruitcake, nut, weirdo, and zany.' None of the synonyms are positive.”

Of course, Marc (who further noted that the word “children” in the sentence is a neutral, non-judgmental word) is correct to be pissed off.

From time to time, I make it a point to collect and save examples of ageist language in the media with an eye toward writing such a post as this one. I never last long at it because it's so time consuming; language that stereotypes and patronizes elders is so pervasive that it pops up many times every day.

Here is one from just last week written by one of my favorite political bloggers, Heather Parton, otherwise known as Digby:

”But the effect of this isn't, in the end, to make little old ladies feel safer by confiscating the 8oz bottle of Geritol in their handbags.”

Amazing how much ageist crap can be crammed into one 26-word sentence, isn't it. When referencing old people, writers invariably reach for the most demeaning adjective or metaphor possible.

In an ironic and amazingly tone-deaf statement in a story last week at Huffington Post, the mother of a two-year-old boy reported on a slur shouted at her son by a customer in the store where she was shopping.

In explaining what led to the incident, she wrote this [emphasis added]:

”The fact that he [her son] was wearing a cute girly headband made him feel good, and he was charming all the old ladies by waving like a little pageant prince. I snapped his photo after two old birds came up to tell me just how adorable he was.”

This is an almost perfect example of how slurs against all classes of people are unacceptable nowadays except for those targeting elders. [The story as been removed from Huffington Post due to a police investigation of the incident.]

If that one isn't enough irony for you, try this one – also from last week.

Serial sexter and New York City mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner was participating in an AARP-sponsored (keep that in mind) debate at Hunter College.

Before the event began, Wiener got into an argument with one of his rivals for office, 69-year-old George MacDonald. Let's go to the video tape:

AARP later said the incident was “unfortunate.” That's all? When even the premier organization for old people lets an ageist language incident slide, you know how far away from parity elders are.

Becca Levy is Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Psychology as well as Director of the Social and Behavioral Sciences Division at Yale University. She has been studying the effects of ageism and ageist language on the health of elders for many years.

”In Levy's longitudinal study of 660 people 50 years and older,” reports Melissa Dittmann, “those with more positive self-perceptions of aging lived 7.5 years longer than those with negative self-perceptions of aging. The study appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 83, No. 2).

“On the other hand, people's positive beliefs about and attitudes toward the elderly appear to boost their mental health.

"Levy has found that older adults exposed to positive stereotypes have significantly better memory and balance, whereas negative self-perceptions contributed to worse memory and feelings of worthlessness.”

Not to put too fine a point on all this, here is New York Times Op-Ed columnist Gail Collins – from one of my earlier collections of media ageism - writing in 2009 [emphasis added]:

“There is something about Romney that causes people to want to change the channel; or, if they are in a senior center in Florida listening to a candidate forum, wander off in search of a second helping of Jell-O. “

I wonder if Collins's self-image is more positive now that five years have passed and she will be 68 in November.

Our Ageist Media - Part 2 of 2

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Henry Lowenstern: Test Tube Burger?


Ageism is so pervasive and unchallenged--thank you for sharing these examples.

Just what I needed to start my day. Thank you.

Good for you to call out the media for their stupid comments about older people. Unfortunately, I don't think their stupidity is limited to this one issue; but it could be the most egregious.

I chuckled at your comment re AARP. I can count on one hand the number of older old in their magazine. Everyone is younger-old, vibrant, healthy, slim, etc. Even the appearance of someone over 75 is unacceptable. What a sham! Dee

Two things:
1, There are so many things to despise about Anthony Weiner it's hard to pick out the worst, but this is right up there.

2) Gail Collins is one of my favorite columnists of all time, so the fact that she said this pains me.

Excellent examples of this sad phenomenon. The concept of how we form self-perceptions as children has long been linked to self-fulfilling prophecies. If we live up or down to other people's expectations and labeling when we're young, why should it be a surprise that it works the same way as we age?

Shout it out Ronni!

Thanks for this and I find the absolutely worst putdowns of seniors is the ones seniors make themselves about themselves. Perpetuating these myths.

I think these "examples of ageism" may be a bit of overreaction and hypersensitivity. "Codger," for example, is a word I've used and interpret to mean an elderly man. Period. No negative connotation. Fondness in some cases. Check dictionaries for primary definition, and consider the context. This doesn't look at all negative to me.

As for the Geritol reference, the writer needed an example of something that might be carried by and confiscated from old people in order to take a well-deserved swing at the TSA's ridiculous searches. It was a deliberate exaggeration to make a point.

"Two old birds" came from an angry woman whose son had been verbally attacked. I'd have resorted to a lot worse language than that if someone attacked my son. The attackers didn't deserve any respect.

Weiner is offensive, period, and his remark seemed to be a deliberate insult coming, finally, from frustration. Ill advised, to be sure, considering it was an AARP event.

Nor can I defend the jello reference. It was insulting and ignorant. Yes, Romney was making the rounds at senior centers, but surely there was a better way to portray the residents' boredom.

I feel like I went through this whole thing decades ago during the so-called "women's lib" movement. Many men continued to use condescending and patronizing language and-when challenged-suggested that the offended woman couldn't take a joke.

These days there's one condescending question that makes me want to scream. It happens whenever I call to make an appointment at a medical center I've never been to before:
Clerk at desk: Do you have access to a computer?
Me: Yes, for the last 25 years or more.
Clerk: We have to ask that, based on the date of birth.
Me (to self): No, you don't. Just say that I need to fill out certain forms. I can either download them from the website or fill them in when I come for my appointment.

It's amazing what people will tweet about older people; comments that seem perfectly OK to them, but are offensive if you happen to be OLD - such as "this audience is full of OLD people." Or, "this person had an AOL e-mail address - bless their heart". I don't think they even see ageism as prejudice.

I'm agreeing with you completely.

Please, please keep sending this message!

To PiedType: I truly respect your perspective on this topic especially given your background. However, as Ronni has pointed out in the past, and as is superbly covered by George Saunders in The Braindead Megaphone, what we hear and read constantly will become what we believe. Even when these words are used without bad intentions, we are numbed and dumbed down to their actual effects.

I am reminded of words like "Steppinfetchit." It wasn't the N word, and my very Southern great aunts "meant no harm." Well, it was harmful.

When people comment that [your group] is lazy, dumb, math-challenged, ditsy, or any other negative thing, members of [your group] will actually perform worse at work, tests, math problems, or logic in real life in response to the slur.

This is a scientifically verified phenomenon known as "stereotype threat" and is a major weapon of bigoted jerks everywhere. That's why the bigots always insist they were either "joking" or daring to be "politically incorrect" when called out for unfunny verbal ugliness.

Without these brave truthtellers of conventional wisdom, [your group] might forget how inferior they really are. And we can't have that, can we?

On the other hand ... maybe we can.

Ouch. Reminds me not to unthinkingly put myself and others down.

I found this article interesting, but it did not effect me emotionally. Stupidity, put-downs, and stereotyping are all part of the human-brain-at-work at this stage in evolution. I dismiss people who do such things, even if aimed at me, as "having a long way to go, baby!" Put-downs and stereotyping are a lazy way of not having to use up oxygen and glucose to fuel thinking. I find those who are lazy thinkers easy to dismiss. Still and all, I believe shining a light on their behaviors is the way to go! Nothing shines a light on ageism better than getting old! I used to call all old people "honey". It took decades to correct me.

Ronni, I think one of the saddest things I ever heard about ageism was when I recently mentioned that stupid headline from FastCompany ("A Tablet So Simple Even An Old Person Can Use It") and you said (I'm paraphrasing): get used to it. You hear so much that is ageist every day that that item, which you had already profiled to no avail, almost didn't even rise above the radar. Since you said that, I have become a bit more militant, because you educated me that I'm late to the party. So I am going to have to work twice as hard to enlighten people about this crap. Thanks for the forum.

"How much can anyone have saved who spent a lifetime working for minimum wage...?" Answer: quite a lot. Has been 15 years since I earned $14, my highest hourly wage. Goal to retire at age 60 is closing in due to forsight. And wise advice.

My parents encouraged me to take advantage of the Carry Trade. When bank CD rates soared to double figures in the early 1980s, money was borrowed in bundles at an interest rate of 6%. It was repositioned in same accounts. The yield was monumental.

When this spike returned to levels more aligned with normal averages all borrowed funds were immediately repaid.
Gains were then shuffled into
other accounts which paid out more than what inflation took away. This landscape changed drastically in the past decade. However, with funds growing in low risk streams there were no crushing stock market dives when the shake down struck. Who would guess bank rates would trickle down to zero percent interest?

Key aspect was to never touch any of this money, let it compound and it would fund my retirement. Stability of SSN never rock solid this offered insurance that there would always be something to draw upon.

Was comfortable in holding blue collar, non-supervisory employment in state jobs (on each coast). Much was saved using this approach. As I expect to live to age 70 Social Security will then suppliment my dwindling nest egg.

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