Like racism and sexism, ageism is a social disease fed by stereotypes. Elders are lumped together under the heading of “old” and attributed a demeaning set of characteristics: senile, sickly, unattractive, greedy, cranky, and child-like. To transform the way our society sees older people we must combat ageism in the everyday interactions and cultural exchanges where stereotypes are conveyed and reinforced.

Movie-goers chuckle every time Tyler Perry's character, Madea, pulls a handgun from her purse.

Movie-goers chuckle every time Tyler Perry’s character, Madea, pulls a handgun from her purse.

Here are the five most harmful ways in which these stereotypes are perpetuated in media and popular culture:

1. Elders are portrayed as helpless victims.

Elders are predominantly depicted as sweet and vulnerable. News stories that feature older people as crime victims are a natural extension of this narrative. Daily headlines regularly include items like:

  • “Elderly Savannah woman scammed out of her life savings”
  • “Police hunt driver who hit elderly man in wheelchair then fled”
  • “Elderly man missing in Torrington”

Such stories perpetuate the stereotype of elders as being warm, but incompetent figures who deserve our pity. Older people are characterized as vulnerable children in need of protection and charity. But, as is often the case with children, this narrative makes it easier for the opinions, concerns, and contributions of elders to be marginalized and discounted.

Surprisingly, well-intentioned advocates working to help elders may (inadvertently) be furthering this stereotype. In order to secure the resources and benefits that are genuinely needed by some elders, advocates often try to generate media attention that (over)emphasizes the vulnerability of older people.

2. Elders who defy negative stereotypes are presented as bizarre and comical.

Recently, the Federal Bureau of Investigation asked for the public’s help in locating the “Geezer Bandit,” a bank robber in his 70s. Bank robberies occur frequently, but they usually garner very little news coverage. In this case, however, news outlets throughout the nation happily covered the story — mostly as a light-hearted aside. Why? Because the man’s age made the story appear humorous, as it seemed so “out of character” and at odds with how older people are assumed to behave: sweet, vulnerable, and child-like. Indeed one Philadelphia TV station included the story in its “Bizarre Bazaar” segment.

Another seemingly “bizarre” news story featured an older person who fended off an intruder by hitting him with a frying pan. Would this story be as newsworthy if the person wielding the frying pan were age 35? Probably not. Our society loves such “funny characters” who defy the stereotype of a “typical” older person. Fictional characters who come to mind include screenwriter Tyler Perry’s popular character Madea, the gun-toting granny; and Mr. Six, the mad-dancing, tuxedo-wearing older man who serves as the mascot for Six Flags. But even these non-stereotypical figures end up reinforcing negative stereotypes – precisely because they are seen as unnatural, odd, bizarre, and exceptions to the stereotypical norm.

3. Growing old is equated with inevitable deterioration and decline.

Stereotypes of growing older include generalizations about declining health, happiness, and attractiveness. In a recent literature review on ageism, author Elizabeth Dozois explained:

Research suggests that most people (including older adults) do not understand the course of typical aging and grossly overestimate its impact. For example, one study found that 90 percent of elderly respondents indicated that the likelihood of them becoming senile was very strong. However, estimates indicate that dementia-related illnesses only affects about 10 percent of people over age 65…

These misconceptions are often taken for granted and presented in media and popular culture as factual.

A recent article in Forbes began: “It won’t be too long before baby boomers begin migrating from factory floors and corner offices to wheelchairs and adult diapers.” The author painted an overly negative portrait of growing old. Of course neither condition is an inevitable part of aging. Still, many ads that feature elders employ similar imagery. Think of commercials for The Clapper, or the Life Alert medical bracelet (i.e., “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”).

Sadly, elders are at risk of internalizing the low expectations of aging which are conveyed in such depictions. Yale University studies have shown that exposure to these gloomy images actually causes seniors to walk more slowly, hear and remember less well, increases stress levels, and harms heart health.

4. Elders are demonized as a group.

As individuals, elders are often treated as sweet, pathetic figures. (Which, as outlined above, can be quite problematic.) As a group, however, elders are judged more harshly. When discussed as a faceless monolith (i.e. “the elderly”), older people are often condemned as “greedy geezers” who undeservedly drain our shared resources via Medicare and Social Security. The founder of one conservative think-tank recently declared:

Medicare uses the force of government to take money from one group of people — those who are working — in order to pay for the health-care costs of another group — senior citizens. Wouldn’t you think that such an important moral principle as “Thou shalt not steal” would be something important for senior citizens to think about, especially given that, statistically speaking, they’re closer to death than everyone else?

Such demonization conveys the message that elders are not worthy of humane treatment, which in turn fosters exclusion and discrimination.

5. Elders are under-represented and ignored.

When elders do appear in media and popular culture, it is often in a stereotypical manner. But, more often than not, elders are simply excluded altogether. In 2005, the number of people age 65 and older had risen to 12.7 percent of the American population. However, according to Senior Journal, elders were represented in less than 2 percent of programs on prime-time television. Nothing could convey the low status of elders in our society better than their invisibility.

Most Americans desire to never be “old” and to never be associated with “those people.” As a result, most non-elderly people have few meaningful relationships with older people. This lack of meaningful exchange, coupled with the lack of complex depictions of elders in media and popular culture, allows the negative stereotypes (as outlined above) to be that much more influential in the minds of most Americans.

So why does any of this matter? It matters because we act on the stereotypes and assumptions we harbor about older people. In a recent Duke University survey 80 percent of elder respondents reported experiencing ageism, such as being ignored or not taken seriously because of their age. Researchers have also documented the propensity of younger individuals to use “baby-talk” (i.e., exaggerated tone, simplified speech, and high pitch) when speaking to older adults. Physicians have been shown to condescend to and patronize older patients by providing oversimplified information or speaking to the family instead of the older patient. And according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, age-based discrimination complaints in the workplace are at an all-time high—up 29% from last year.

Stereotypes matter. And we all have a responsibility to challenge them when and where they do occur.

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