A TGB READER STORY: Remembering Kathy

The Public Image of Old People

[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.]

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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.



In many ways, it bothers me more to see those "superelders" portrayed in the media than it does to see a group of tottering octogenarians with walkers trying to imitate the Rockettes. It takes courage and maybe a little insanity to jump out of an airplane at any age. And, by singling out old people for doing something only young folks are supposed to do. is ageism at its worst.

Television and other media are advertiser driven, no secret there, but I think generally speaking most of us have stopped responding to every consumerist fad that comes down the pike. Therefore media feels no need to portray us in the manner we’d prefer. Follow the money.

Have you noticed that every time the news talks about Nancy Pelosi, they write, “Nancy Pelosi, 79, said xxx.” Why? I’ve never seen a man’s age mentioned so often. Ageism and sexism!!

50 is old? Who says that?

Quit listening to the 20 and 30 year olds. At a "feel good" 95, I do have a bit of a limp and use a cane; but age should be what's in the mind and not what's in the body.

The only things that make me feel "old" are in the world of computing and artificial intelligence. I typically get lost with all the verbiage.

Have a nice day, you young punks!

From the ole guy who blogs and is a Dodger and Patriot fan.

So much this!

I don't yet need diapers and yet I'm unlikely to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro this year. So do I exist?

(Today is my birthday. I'm 63. You can imagine the details of my early older age/very late middle age health very well, I imagine.)

Amen Emiel. I keep wondering how the sweet young things will feel when age catches up with them.

Your post today is very serendipitous. It's my 66th birthday and everything you wrote is so true, sadly. we just have to make our own waves and rock the boat as much as we can! Thanks for keeping us in the spotlight.

I read a wonderful column in the NY Times a few weeks ago. I meant to save it but didn't. If anyone recognizes it, would you please post a link here? The author was a published writer who had tried to write a novel about two older people: One was a grumpy old man; the other was a sprightly, energetic, bossy woman. The writer's editor told her she was stereotyping.

I'm not sure if the following was explicitly said in the column, but this is my takeaway:

The editor's comment -- and the writer's own research later -- led her to realize that she couldn't get inside the head of an elderly person because her experience with such people was so limited. She really didn't know lots of old people, so she couldn't visualize the diversity. In contrast, she could write about a male protagonist, because she'd known lots of boys and men of all kinds all her life.

She closed with a short discussion of literature that portrayed older people accurately and respectfully.

I considered sending it to you, Ronni, but I figured you'd seen it already. I sure wish I could find it again.

Who gets the last laugh? All those who are now spewing ageist tripe will...........YES!..........one day be, ha ha, OLD! As some elder said, "Everything I need is between my ears."

Well said Ronni! I wonder if elders are still revered in other cultures. Probably not!!

I'm 70. I get so sick of hearing, when I mention something from my younger years, such as a TV show or whatever..."Shelley, you're giving away your age. " Giving away my age? OK, am I supposed to be ashamed of my age? Should I be ashamed of surviving? Would it be more socially acceptable to be dead? And mind you, some who make those comments are close to my age!

You are absolutely right about the Public Image of Old People, in the US that is, I believe. I was just reading in a French magazine why French men prefer to date older women and all the reasons. You see how our president Macron’s wife Brigitte is 25 years old than him? The US media made a big deal about it and the French press answered that is was the same age difference as between Donald and Melania Trump, so what? So what, indeed - the US marketing industry concentrating on the youth market is what is hurting mature people in this country, and it is too bad. Younger people miss a lot by not being interested by older generations. Going to Paris to visit my mum I had many younger men wishing to take me out – 15, 20 years+ younger, but this rarely happens in the US. I’m pleased that the AARP is working on this US ageism perception.

Shelley, YES! "Giving away your age" is such a stupid thing to say, and when we older people say it we're contributing to ageism. We mustn't be ashamed to be whatever age we are!

I'm on twitter a lot and the one that really gets me is when they talk about baby boomers as the enemy. The last one I read was about how they're not afraid of civil war (trending right now) because the last time they saw a baby boomer was when they were asking where Times Square was while standing in the middle of Times Square.
They're saying all baby boomers are Trumpers.
I've been basically ok with aging relatively speaking but lately I've been thinking of saying I'm 75 so people will think I look younger. I'm 72. Sad.

Can we mention the wealth of experience and perspective that everyone has when they get older. Some use these advantages well and become wise. We could use more wisdom in our world.

Great post (as always, Ronni!) and comments; I agree with you all. A friend (with wonderful, caring grown children) said to me the other day that when she was younger, she wondered why "old people are so grumpy" but now she knows why because of the aches & pains of old age. But that doesn't explain all the grumpiness. Now that I'm in the position myself, I realize that some of the grumpiness can be caused by being an old person with no children at all (or none that are willing/able to help), which for too many of us is a sentence of solitary confinement. It depends on your situation of course--the community in which you live, if you're still able to drive, whether or not you're a church-goer, etc.--and unfortunately even if you live with a spouse, if that spouse has Alzheimers or other illnesses, it's too much like being alone so the "solitary" label still fits.

And if you're even lucky enough--and many of us are not--to live in an area with all kinds of senior companion-type programs such as the phone-call-to-a-senior to just check on them and "cheer them up", the cheering up doesn't always work. It's not that all seniors who find 1 phone call a day to not be enough are ungrateful, it's that it feels not enough because it's being done out of pity or compassion and everybody, not just seniors, would rather be called because people enjoy talking to them as their (sadly, usually lone-gone) friends used to. So even though the volunteers who do this senior companion kind of work do it with the absolute best of intentions, this may explain to them why the seniors who they are so kindly calling or visiting seem grumpy and ungrateful; this kind of visit or calling is just not the same as a real friend doing it and never will be.

So what is the answer to cheering the elderly up and helping them to be less lonely if they can no longer drive? The only answer that I can think of is moving them to a seniors facility or neighborhood where there can be plenty of genuine visiting and interesting things going on and most can't afford that (or have a spouse that will agree to it); they're stuck where they are. It's a sad situation to be in, but unfortunately those in it are also in a very large club.

Great post. In an ideal world, people of all races, genders, ages, abilities, etc. would be treated with respect unless they've done something unworthy of it--like the current occupant of the Oval Office, perhaps? Unfortunately, I don't see the situation changing any time soon. The area where I live is being overrun by 20-something techies earning upwards of $100K. Lifetime residents are being pushed out of the main city. Time marches on, of course, but I think that sometimes change happens too fast for the infrastructure and institutions that must support it, especially if one is an "old" person of 50 (I'm 82).

It is what it is. . .

Phooey on all of them!

Great topic.

Elizabeth, your city sounds like Seattle - ageism meets income inequality.

I try to be vigilant of my own ageism. I can be, I'm sorry to say, ageist.

Everyone ages differently.

In my last job, we had 5 generations working under one roof. I worked with people in their 20s - 70s.

I wrote a blog post on the tropes of old age recently. All those birthdays for 75 yo - she's 75 years YOUNG. No she's not, she's effin OLD!

And what's wrong with being a sissy ( as in old age is not for....). Old age is for everyone, including sissies and wimps. If one is lucky enough to survive to it.

The tottering Depends bummed people with loose dentures and wondering where their glasses are or even the day of the week, bother me no end. I live in a building with a few dementia-ed people but they are in the minority and I feel they are being slapped with such careless portrayals. Most of us have the full rack of marbles tho and bemoan how we ALL are portrayed as forgetful smelly diapered old geezers..

Also another one of my dislikes is when I am told I don't look 76. Especially after some recent TV appearances. What the hell is that supposed to mean? My response is always a la Gloria Steinem - this is what 76 looks like!

Brava on this post.


Great post, great comments. God help the receptionist who calls me "Young lady." I'm 82, and I don't look young. One poor young thing who called me that got a brief lecture on why that's condescending and she shouldn't do it. But then, I'm a person who bristles at "Dear" and "Sweetie," too.

But I'm posting to say thanks for mentioning 'The Kaminsky Method," which I've watched over and over. What a fabulous concept, and the cast is terrific, too.

...and the beat goes on ... with this never-ending ageist issue prevalent throughout my lifetime. Change can take decades but we keep up the effort as you continue noting here. I. too, have found the two TV series you mention as reasonably good entertaining fare at portraying older generations.

Jeanne, good observation. You're spot on about Seattle!

In a culture like ours, you can find yourself feeling apologetic for being old. Isn't that sad?

Tomorrow is the UN's International Day of Older Persons

The United Nations For Ageing Theme: "The Journey to Age Equality"

The 2019 theme aims to progress on the journey to ending
older age inequalities and changing negative narratives and stereotypes involving old age.

NO to ageism ;YES to intergenerational equality

As we are celebrating the International Day of Older Persons on Oct 1, we recognize that population ageing is a human success story, a story of longer and often healthier lives of the world’s people.

Still, ageing is considered a threat.

There is talk about the “burden of aging”, exploding healthcare costs, and concerns about plummeting economic growth due to the shrinking labor force.

We see advertisement for “anti-ageing cosmetics” and surgeries. The current ideal is that we must be young, dynamic and without wrinkles or grey hair, especially older women.

The young people of today are the older persons of tomorrow. Population ageing can only be addressed systematically if an intergenerational approach based on equity and seeing youth and ageing are part of a single continuum is adopted. Let us celebrate population ageing and embrace it. A fair society for older persons is a just and prosperous society for all ages.

I join Ronni's support of Greta Thunberg and recall Dr. Bill Thomas'
novel Tribes of Eden ' that relies on the bonds between youth and elders to save the day.'

Say NO to ageism ;YES to intergenerational equality.

What vagabonde said.

Tu as raison!

Other cultures revere their elders, why not here! In my case I’m very fortunate to have loving, caring children, I wish that for us all.
My mind is good my body not so much but every day my curiosity and interest in learning only increases. This society must become less prejudiced and more inclusive toward us. Thanks Ronni for all you do, God Bless!

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