Judith A. Davey
When I last wrote a blog post about ageism – in 2015 – I was concerned mostly about ageism in the workplace. That is certainly not the only place where it exists, so my eye was caught by a report by the Centre for Ageing Better, in the UK (Swift et al, 2019, ageing-better.org.uk). This was based on a literature review summarising what research tells us about the role and impact of language and stereotypes in framing old age and ageing. This got me thinking.
Who is an “Old Person”?
Differing age ranges are used in the discourse. But the Centre for Ageing Better report uses the term ‘old age’ or ‘older person’ referring to people aged 50 and over. This is also the definition regularly used to define “older workers” in the international literature. But having children well into their forties makes it hard for me to contemplate that they are verging on old age.
What is Ageism?
Ageism is a combination of how we think about age (stereotypes), how we feel about age (prejudice) and how we behave in relation to age (discrimination).
Because groups of people have similar personal characteristics, such as age, gender, or ethnicity, we can easily make assumptions that they are like each other. This process leads to the development of stereotypes. And sometimes we develop negative attitudes towards those we see as different to ourselves, a process that is often called “othering”.
Descriptive stereotypes represent assumptions about what we think certain groups and individuals are like. Positive assumptions about older people may include politeness, kindness and wisdom.
They can also be negative such as notions that older people are less attractive and less physically able.
These stereotypes influence how we behave towards and interact with older people.
Stereotypes of low competence can lead to feelings of pity but may also encourage neglect and exclusion. Even stereotypes of older people which suggest that they need help can be quite patronising even though they do not seem harmful on the surface. Societal attitudes towards older people have been described as “benign indifference” when ageism is manifest indirectly, as a lack of respect.
Prescriptive stereotypes are assumptions about how we think certain groups of people should or shouldn’t behave. Common examples include the notion that older people must pass on power or jobs to younger people; that older people shouldn’t consume too many resources; and that they should not engage in activities that are seen as traditionally for ‘younger’ people. When older people go against these prescriptive stereotypes, they can face criticism and scorn.
Both descriptive and prescriptive stereotypes can become self-fulfilling, as they can affect how older people view themselves. Being labelled as “elderly” (which to me implies frailty) and “vulnerable” (which to me means risk-prone) made me feel that I must have these characteristics when I was labelled as such during the pandemic lockdown (I have to admit to being well over age 70).
Stereotypes about older people are frequently more negative than positive. As I pointed out before, older workers are perceived to be more dependable, loyal and reliable, but also as having lower levels of performance, less ability to learn, and more costly than younger workers.
In health and social care, stereotypes tend to be even more negative, focusing on physical and cognitive decline and death. The first gerontology conference I attended was dominated by papers on falls, dementia and incontinence, and I wondered what I was letting myself in for in entering this area of research. Subsequently, the topics covered in gerontology conferences and research have become much wider and much more positive – ranging not only into paid work but also participation in the arts, sport and community leadership.
Is there any truth in these stereotypes?
Some stereotypes contain an element of truth. We cannot ignore that health issues become more prevalent with age or that functional abilities change over time. The problem is that stereotypes
ignore the variation between people of the same age.This means that wrong assumptions are made based on age, but which are not true for an individual.
The importance of language
Using patronising and infantilising language towards older people can encourage them to conform to negative stereotypes of old age – low competence and high dependence. The impact may be influenced by the language is used or who is using it. The Centre for Ageing Better report suggests this by its title “Doddery but dear”.
Media representations tend to draw on negative stereotypes, reflecting a view that ageing is associated with inevitable decline. Older people are represented as being more of a burden than benefit. Metaphors such as ‘grey tsunami’, ‘demographic cliff’ and ‘demographic timebomb’ present old age in terms of crisis, reflecting a perception of old age and the ‘baby boomer’ generation as a societal burden. “Boomer” itself has become a derogatory term. This can stoke perceptions of conflict between generations. At a personal level older people are dehumanised by terms such as ‘hags’ and ‘fossils.” The worst epithet I have heard applied to older people is “pre-dead”. On the other hand, TV and films often present older people in an exaggeratedly positive light. We have all seen older people portrayed in advertising in youthful and energetic ways – unrealistic to achieve for many. Some “active” and “successful” ageing narratives can be criticised for exacerbating inequalities by excluding and stigmatising older people who cannot achieve the idealised model.
Later life needs to be recognised as a time of diversity, just like any other age. One of the ways to do this is to readdress the balance and encourage more realistic depictions of ageing in traditional media, social media and policy-making circles, but, overall, without stereotypes.
The perception of old age and older people can be influenced, in major part, by the particular person. I have often heard the statement “that person does not look or behave like an XX year old.”