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?