[EDITORIAL NOTE: My apologies to non-subscribers for the number of New York Times links. Usually I try to use as many sources without paid firewalls as possible but these are the links I had collected over time not knowing I would use them all in the same place. I think, however, the quotations stand on their own.]
Every now and then, I get all wound up about how poorly old people are treated in the media. This is one of those times.
For every nicely done cable series starring old people (Grace and Frankie and The Kominsky Method come to mind), there are a zillion portrayals reminding everyone that if you're older than 50 (and even younger sometimes) you are no better than dead.
Sometimes it is that literal. Earlier this year, New York Times New Old Age columnist Paula Span related this incident:
”It happened about a year ago. I stepped off the subway and spotted an ad on the station wall for a food delivery service. It read: 'When you want a whole cake to yourself because you’re turning 30, which is basically 50, which is basically dead.'”
Ageism can also be quite subtle. Here's a webpage about a group of professionals dedicated to combating ageism in the advertising business. But it is close to impossible for anyone older than 40 to read it thanks to the light gray text on a white background.
However much they may mean well in regard to ageist words and images in media, what is the point if they can't get this simple part right.
Recently, there has been an uptick in the number of news stories about how marketers mostly ignore old people. In one of them, Tiffany Hsu at The New York Times writes:
”...the demographic is shunned and caricatured in marketing images, perpetuating unrealistic stereotypes and contributing to age discrimination, according to a new report.”
Ms. Hsu, referencing that report, from AARP, notes that although people 50 and older make up more than a third of the U.S. population and one-third of the labor force, they appear in only 15 percent of all types of media images and in only 13 percent of media images showed older people working.
Repetition plays a large role in cementing our beliefs (see or hear it often enough, it must be true) and none of us is immune all the time. In addition, what we do NOT see can be as powerful as what's right in front of us – like screen texts that even middle-aged eyes can't read and old people working alongside people of all other ages.
When old people are excluded from the public media conversation, they become less than everyone else, as if they have a disease, and denigrating them directly or by omission, becomes acceptable.
According to reporter Hsu, some advertising agency employees blame their own ageist offices for fostering ageism in the advertising and marketing they produce. AARP says it is pressing agencies to change their ageist ways and in one instance AARP has
”...teamed with Getty Images, the stock media supplier, to introduce a collection of 1,400 images on Monday that show older people running businesses, playing basketball and hanging out with younger generations.
“'What we needed was imagery showing mature adults leading full lives,' Rebecca Swift, the global head of creative insights for Getty Images, said in a statement.”
That's what bothers me. I'm tired of seeing headlines such as this one, also from The New York Times, June 2019:
”She’s 103 and Just Ran the 100-Meter Dash. Her Life Advice?”
Too often and perhaps in a misguided attempt to show elders as equal to mid-age adults, the media report only on the few old people, the “superelders”, who behave like 30- or 40-year-olds by skydiving and climbing tall mountains. In the real world, most elders must accommodate the inevitable decline of our bodies but that doesn't mean we become stupid or irrelevant.
Do I want to see old people portrayed realistically as workers, business owners, playing whatever sports they enjoy and doing the things they have done all their lives? For god's sake, yes, appropriately for their age.
But I also want us portrayed on the other side of realistic: the ones of us who use wheel chairs or canes to get around, for example, but still go to work, drive cars, cook, clean and take care of the chores and errands everyone else does even if we are a bit slower - that's normal with age. I'm tired of seeing old people portrayed most frequently as needy and dependent.
I want old people to be as respected by the culture and portrayed in the media as the grown ups they are, a right they once had in their lives but which was snatched away when they started to look 50 or 55 or 60.
In short, I want it to become okay to be old and I want to see that reflected in the all the various media that is so much of our lives.