Overcoming the Stereotypes of Aging

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While we often hear people say, “Age is just a number” or “You are only as old as you feel,” it is just as common to hear disparaging remarks about older people. The notion that seniors are “over the hill” doesn’t reflect the reality of post-retirement living.

The age at which one becomes a “senior citizen” is a matter of perspective. Is it when a person qualifies for Social Security? Or is it when a person applies for Social Security? Retirement might be a milestone that defines senior status, but some people retire before they reach 50 and others work into their 90s.

Aging correlates with declining health, but some people develop serious health conditions at an early age while others remain fit long after they become eligible for Medicare. While everyone grows older, aging is an individual experience.

Stereotypes of Aging

Stereotypes are myths about how people behave because of their membership in a particular group. Stereotypes assume that all members of a group behave in the same way, ignoring individual differences within the group.

Stereotypes define members of a group by attributes they may not share. Myths of aging (pdf download here) include:

  • Older people are ill and infirm.
  • Older people are incapable of learning new things.
  • Older people are set in their ways.
  • Older people have no desire or ability to be sexually active.
  • Older people are unproductive and a drain on society.
  • Older people have lost touch with reality.

Stereotypes about aging are pervasive. They are reinforced by images in media and advertising that depict the elderly as feeble, helpless, dependent, and demanding. Shortly before her death at the age of 90, Doris Roberts, an actress who won multiple Emmy awards after reaching the age of 70 for her role on Everybody Likes Raymond, told a Senate committee that the “image makers” in the entertainment industry are “the worst perpetrators” of ageist stereotypes.

Ms. Roberts reminded the senators “the majority of seniors are self-sufficient middle-class consumers with more assets than most young people and the time and talent to offer society.” She talked about people in the arts and sciences (from Georgia O’Keefe to Albert Einstein) who continued to do astonishing work at an age viewed by many as “over the hill.”

Harms of Age-Related Stereotypes

Stereotypes reinforce negative perceptions of people who belong to stereotyped groups. Stereotypes of the elderly reinforce ageism and contribute to age-based discrimination.

Studies found that negative stereotypes can also have an impact on the physical and mental health of older adults. Stereotypes can create self-fulfilling prophesies. When older people are expected to be unhealthy, they are more likely to accept ill health rather than seeking treatment.

Rather than adopting “successful aging” strategies to improve the quality of their lives, seniors may assume that stereotypes are accurate and accept physical or cognitive decline as inevitable. Some seniors become so discouraged that they fail to seek medical care for treatable conditions.

Stereotypes can also make individuals fear aging. Ageist assumptions cause anxiety that leads to hypertension. People who expect to be sick or dependent as they age may become depressed. Depression leads to isolation and loneliness, conditions that have adverse impacts on physical and emotional well-being.

Combatting Age-Related Stereotypes

Individuals can fight ageist stereotypes by recognizing that everyone ages in a different way. Regarding seniors as unique human beings rather than lumping them together as “old people” is something that individuals of all ages can practice.

As a society, fighting age-based stereotypes requires a commitment of time and resources. Adding ageism to school curricula that educate students about racism and sexism is an obvious starting point. Public awareness campaigns, such as Boston’s Age Strong campaign, help people set aside stereotypes and see seniors as vital individuals. Local groups that want to raise public awareness can screen documentaries like Young at Heart or invite speakers who work in the field of healthy aging.

Creating productive roles for older people as volunteers in community service projects yields multiple benefits. Giving seniors the opportunity to stay active and to do useful work improves their sense of self-worth while giving society the benefit of their skills and experience. Creating environments in which seniors interact with younger people also fights stereotyping by giving younger generations a chance to meet seniors who defy the myths of aging.

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