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