Call Me by My Name! Ageism and Senior Adults

The other day, we were in a supermarket and heard a small ruckus. A 40-ish woman was barking at an older woman. At first, we wondered what was wrong. As it turned out, nothing. The younger woman was merely speaking very loudly, assuming that either the older woman couldn’t hear or couldn’t understand. The incident was cringeworthy. We wondered, was the younger woman just rude or merely insensitive? The answer is probably yes to both.

That got us thinking. How does society treat older adults – with respect or disdain? And if it’s the latter, is it a cultural thing or something deeper?

We hear now that “70 is the new 50” and “80 is the new 60.” In other words, people are living longer, healthier, more active lives, thanks to improvements in healthcare, nutrition, technology and communications. In the United States today, nearly 47 million adults are over the age of 65.  Advertisers regard them as consumer targets and a worthwhile market for the travel, healthcare, and apparel industries.

And most recently, because of a low unemployment rate and shortage of talent, senior adults are in increased workforce demand because of their experience, highly specialized skills, knowledge, and their ability to deal with customers. Some have even become “granfluencers” on Instagram and TikTok.

That’s the good news.

A barrage of negative stereotypes

The bad news is that the majority of older adults – a whopping 80% over the age of 50 – are experiencing age-based discrimination. Sometimes, it’s the small things, like women being addressed as “Hon” or “Young Lady.” Or if an older  gentleman seeks computer assistance, he’s addressed as “Fella” and treated as though he were “out of touch” or an “old geezer” because he can’t fathom TikTok or he doesn’t know how to deal with a frozen screen.

Then, there are the stereotypes. For example, greeting cards that emphasize age-related physical changes, forgetfulness, or portray older adults as buffoons, unattractive, and cranky: “You know you are getting older when it takes twice as long to look half as good”- type birthday cards. “In our younger years, the cards are upbeat. At some point though, the narrative changes, sometimes as early as age 30,” observed Sheri Levy in the Daily News.

According to AARP, people 55-plus now control 70 percent of all personal wealth in the United States. To refine those numbers: surveys from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that older adults buy 56 percent of all new cars and trucks, 55 percent of personal care products, 65 percent of health care, 68 percent of home maintenance and repairs, and 76 percent of all prescription drugs.

Yet, product promotions saturating the airwaves, streaming channels, and print media, disparage this demographic.  Commercials poke fun at people’s physical frailty, and tout products that prevent “embarrassing incontinence” and deliver “anti-aging formulas.”

“Cultural stereotypes about aging are rampant,” notes John Mastronardi, Executive Director of the Nathaniel Witherell, “and this is leading to a devaluation of older adults. Somehow, ageism has become a socially accepted form of prejudice. The pity is that the people perpetuating those stereotypes may not even be aware of it.”

The Impact

Older adults [In the US, that’s defined as someone over 65] don’t see themselves as incompetent. In fact, they bristle when they think others see them that way or when they become the butt of jokes. Yet, through the constant barrage of negative stereotypes, ageism has the effect of eroding their confidence. And with time, the impact can become devastating with the result that older adults can become depressed, and feel isolated, irrelevant, devalued and invisible.

 

It doesn’t have to be that way. In some cultures, especially Asian, Indian, Native American, older members of families are revered for their wisdom and respected for their age. Confucian values promote a positive view of aging, which encourages younger generations to treat older adults with respect, obedience, and care.

“The problem is, we live in a youth obsessed culture,” Mr. Mastronardi notes. “If we want to get younger generations to value wisdom as much as youth in a society that fetishizes youth, that’s going to be a tougher row to hoe. We’re going to have to work at it.”

Steps you can take to combat ageism:

  1. Begin with awareness. Realize that there is a problem that’s impacting our older adult population, and that by changing what we say and how we speak, we can begin to change attitudes.
  2. “If you see [hear] something, say something,” as they say in the New York City subway system. Sometimes that’s difficult to do, but there are nice ways of correcting people when they inadvertently make disparaging remarks about older people.
  3. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes. How would you feel if someone made derogatory remarks about your appearance, your age, your mental acuity, or your agility?
  4. Recognize the value of a multi-generational social life or workspace and communicate that to others. In other words, practice what you preach.
  5. If you find the content of some advertising offensive, let the advertiser’s marketing department know. You can usually find that information online. Nearly half (47 percent) concurred that “ads of people my age reinforce outdated stereotypes.” Even better, contact AARP which is actively fighting against negative stereotypes of older people.

And finally, when you hear someone say, “Call me by my name!” – remember, they’re really saying “See me as a whole person, the person I am.”

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