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2015 Best Media Effort in Combatting Ageism

Pretty much all media is rife with ageist references and language. Just now as I begin writing this post, Today show host Matt Lauer, droning on in the background, said that actor Florence Henderson is “81 years young.”

Some people believe that's harmless. Others think it's cute. It is neither.

Every time someone uses a euphemism or phrase designed to hide the idea of old age, all old people are incrementally dehumanized. As the man who coined the term "ageism," the late great geriatrician Robert Butler, explained in his introduction to the Encyclopedia of Ageism, there are real-world consequences:

”[Ageism] is found in the reduced delivery of services, time limits to mortgages, depiction in the media and by Madison Avenue, poor nursing homes, passed over promotions, and other prejudices in the workplace. Age discrimination is present in our language and even within families.”

Ageism is commonplace and everywhere but now and then a usually nameless media person strikes a elegant blow against it. That happened Monday evening on an NBC medical drama called Night Shift, set in the emergency room of a fictional hospital in Texas, San Antonio Memorial.

There are plenty of soap opera aspects to the show and, as we discussed a few days ago, more blood and guts than I think is necessary, but this episode also contained a lovely, little lesson about the dangers of ageism.

Before I get further into that, let me note that I awarded the first best media effort to combat ageism way back in 2007 to a police procedural titled,The Closer.

In that episode, a retired reporter named Baxter first confesses to poisoning residents of the nursing home where he lives, then recants his confession. He had used it as a ruse to get the police, who had ignored his warnings about some murders, to pay attention.

When Chief Johnson, played by Kyra Sedgwick, becomes involved in the case, this conversation ensues:

TAYLOR: [The officer who took Baxter’s complaint] Gordon found Baxter uncooperative. In fact, the old guy was more interested in asking questions than answering them. So Detective Gordon dumped his complaint in the round file. You know, Chief, we get this kind of stuff all the time. It’s hard enough staying on top of the crimes we find much less the ones people make up.

JOHNSON: (perusing file) I know exactly what happened. Mr. Baxter is old and difficult and because of that he was just dismissed out of hand. [I know] that’s what happened because that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do to him myself.

As I wrote all those eight years ago:

”Chief Johnson - who could have been speaking for every bureaucrat, healthcare worker, comedian, reporter and thousands of other television shows who regularly condescend to elders - makes an attitude adjustment and with the help of Mr. Baxter's clues, solves the crime.”

Hurray and hallelujah. Such scenes are, to everyone who sees them, important little lessons in understanding, just as negative commentaries, references and language are instructions for continued prejudice and bigotry.

Let me give you the background on Monday's wonderful little lesson. Paul Cummings, played by Robert Bailey, Jr., is the youngest doctor on the emergency room team, serving his internship.

When the longer serving physicians note the arrival of a regular patient, an aging, pain-in-the-ass hypochondriac they know to be the matriarch of the hospital's biggest donor family, they sic her on Dr. Cummings.

Marilyn Capshaw, played by Phyllis Somerville, is behaving in a mildly disruptive and incoherent manner and she tries flirting with Cummings as he tries to examine her.

All the tests come back normal and it takes one of the more experienced doctors to check Capshaw's eyes and tell Cummings that she is stoned out of her mind on weed. Cummings had not tested for cannabis because – you guessed it - she's old.

Here is the excellent little scene in which Capshaw sets Cummings straight about that:

Isn't that a fine piece of writing to debunk a hackneyed assumption about old people? If, while watching it, you did not extrapolate the point into wondering what could happen if such an assumption led to overlooking a life threatening condition, you should have.

Meanwhile, let's hear it for episode writer, Zachary Lutsky, and the show story editor, Gabe Fonseca. There aren't enough of such moments in any media and we must celebrate when they appear.

There must have been other such examples between the 2007 vignette on The Closer and this one but how much television can one old woman watch. It would be a good thing if you, dear readers, kept these two media moments in mind and let me know the particulars when you run across any in the future.

If you want to know more about the show, Night Shift, you'll find plenty of information at the NBC website for it.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Clifford Rothband: What am I, a Duck?


Ironically, The Closer episode you mentioned just re-played here in Italy this past week. I saw it and liked it. I haven't seen the other show you describe but I'll check it out. I agree that it's important to give a shout out to such moments. I'll keep my eyes open.

OK...why does the MD in that weed clip look about 13 years old? Time goes by!

I loved that she used the clamps as a roach clip.

I'm with you. The clamp roach clip was an inspired piece of business.

We always used clamps as roach clips or a bobby-pin...

I worked in hospitals for many years and doctors were always dismissive and looked down on old ladies. Even female doctors do this. They see us as hypochondriacs and you can see their eyes glaze over as we tell them our symptoms and you know then that they've quit listening. It's no wonder they mis-diagnose half the time....

And their conversations with others about their old lady patients reveals an impatience and dislike of old women that has to color their treatment -- doctors expect us all to agree with their opinion, even when they're wrong. It's the "Jesus complex" coming through -- after all, they DO resurrect people from the dead! It would be funny if it weren't so terrible for their patients.

I can't see the clip, am I doing something wrong?

Link to the clip didn't come through to me either.

What scares and angers me the most is how they have finally begun to admit that many old people are over-dosed in nursing homes and hospitals just to keep them quiet. And many are given medicines that are incorrect or are the wrong dosage strength which has not been corrected for age and weight.

Ronni--I assume that you intend us to take "business" in the theatrical sense? *chuckling*

Classof65--Sometimes we have to shop around until (if we are lucky) we find a physician who asks intelligent questions, listens well, and assumes we know something about our own bodies. I've had two such physicians in my life (both, women) and am currently shopping for another.

Hi Evelyn...

I've always tried exceptionally hard to never use insider jargon
when I write whether, in my case, it is the radio, TV, theater,
film, internet, etc. production industries. In this, I
overlooked "bit of business" or "piece of business" which is
phrase for small, sometimes subtle and usually unreferenced
action an actor takes in a scene that, hopefully, enhances
understanding of a character or moves the storyline forward a
little. Capshaw using the medical clamp as an oversized roach
clip is a wonderful bit because it does the job and so perfectly
reinforces her character. But I shouldn't have used the phrase.

Especially so because although it was a day late for that post,
I spent two hours yesterday having a long chat mostly about
writing with a writerly friend whose into year two of a project
with some University of Chicago researchers on a book about some
new ideas on aging. We got into that kind of minutiae.

Hope it's warming up in your part of the world.

Phone: 212.242.0184

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questions, listens well, and assumes we
know something about our own bodies.
I've had two such physicians in my life
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As a medical marijuana patient here in Oregon, I found some amusement with the confusion hospitals and nursing homes have with how to deal with we patients who opine for marijuana instead of opiates for pain control.

The hospital said no to my bong (that didn't surprise me) but didn't now what to do abut the vapor pen that does not create any scent or smoke. Finally my son brought me Canna-Caps.capsules of grape seed oil and marijuana tincture that I had to sneak like a kid covering up her candy.

The hospital says they can't control the dose. I pointed out that I'd been dosing myself for 5 years and knew what to take. I didn't want to take vicodin or percocet when my pain wasn't that serious. I don't like to use NSAIDS and haven't for a long time.

At the nursing home, I just said I was a smoker and used a vapor pen and went and sat with the smokers..not a preference but better than nothing.

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