The Boomers Tackle Ageism

Related topics: Mental and Emotional Health

What's in a name? In the last issue, we polled readers about their preferred term for people over age 65.

Image 171

"Older adults" was the top answer, with 44% of the votes. "Seniors" drew 30%. Far behind were "elders" (6%) and "elderly"(2%). And 18% selected "none of the above." Similar polls elsewhere have consistently yielded similar results. When pollsters ask why respondents dislike terms such as "senior," "elder," "golden years," many people say those words have negative connotations.

But are those terms really by definition negative? Teens in their fourth year of high school proudly proclaim their "senior" status. "Senior" execs get the corner offices. The term "elders" was traditionally used as a title for the most powerful and wise members of a tribe. The word "golden," when not followed by "age," remains a traditional signal of excellence. It seems obvious that the perceived negativity associated with these words really stems from our culture's prejudices about age and aging. Is this negativity inevitable? What can be done about it?

Examining ageism

"Ageism" means a bias against an individual because of his or her age. Ageism is as pernicious as racism, sexism, discrimination against people with disabilities, or any other prejudice. In the U.S. today, ageism presents itself as age discrimination against older workers and job-seekers… in negative media stereotypes about older people, coupled with a shortage of positive images…and sometimes in downright hostility and resentment toward people who are dealing with mobility and cognitive challenges.

The negative impact of prejudice has been well-documented. Stress, depression and a higher risk factor for heart disease, dementia and a host of other chronic illnesses go hand in hand with every type of prejudice. For seniors, negative messages can create a self-fulfilling prophecy: marginalization leads to low self-esteem and depression, which in turn accelerates withdrawal and physical decline.

The damaging effects of ageism start early. A study from Yale School of Public Health discovered that young people who harbor negative stereotypes about seniors are less likely to experience good health as they, in turn, grow older. It is worth the effort for people of every age to improve our national—and global—ways of thinking about seniors.

Consciousness raising for the baby boomer generation

Did you know that 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 each day? Ironically, the boomers are the generation whose anthems were "Hope I die before I get old" and "Never trust anyone over 30." But many boomers renounced those sentiments, moving beyond their youthful prejudices to take charge of their aging in new and creative ways. They've learned some good lessons from "The Greatest Generation," their parents. And this activist generation is also addressing ageism with some of the same social justice tools they earlier used against racism, sexism, disability prejudice and other social ills.

"Consciousness raising" is part of the solution. Many boomers are examining their own negative stereotypes about aging. Rather than seeking cosmetic surgery to look younger, they are working to dispel the negativity that would make a senior feel the need to look younger. They are examining out-of-date assumptions, ways of thinking and talking about aging that carry an overt or hidden value judgment about age. (Think about phrases like "70 years young" or "you look great for your age." Swap that out for the less-patronizing "70 years old" and "you look great!")

The boomers are also calling for more positive images of older adults in the media—and not only silver-haired tennis players, but also seniors who happen to be dealing with health challenges.

A national priority

Today we are seeing efforts on the individual, institutional, national and global fronts that aim to fight ageism and impress on everyone that every stage of life is valuable. Intergenerational programs break down barriers between age groups. Innovative empathy-building exercises use special glasses, gloves and rigid clothing to help younger people understand the physical challenges of aging—and hopefully, to also see the person inside. To encourage young people to prepare for their own later years, "age-advancing" software programs present them with a simulation of how they will look in the future—and for many, this helps make tangible the idea that most all of us will pass through the stages of life, with a never-changing need for respect and individualism.

Along with attitude, our infrastructure, too, must increasingly embrace "senior power." According to the U.S. Administration on Aging, over the next two decades, the number of Americans over age 65 will double, from today's 35 million to over 70 million. Here are some of the goals of government agencies and other organizations who serve seniors:

  • Increased support for people who wish to work past the traditional retirement age
  • Promoting volunteer opportunities and other ways for older adults to remain visible and active in the community.
  • New senior living models that allow for greater choice, such as the “village concept,” increased in-home services, and a more person-centered model of nursing home care
  • Enhancing the safety net for vulnerable and frail seniors
  • Improved accessibility in public spaces that allows access for people of all abilities
  • Recognition and support for family caregivers  
  • Encouragement and better compensation for medical students who specialize in gerontology.

Eventually, the average age of our population is expected to decrease. But the baby boomers have a great opportunity to create a legacy for Generation X, Generation Y, the Millennials and future generations not yet named. While the boomers will not be and have not been exempt from the challenges of aging, it is ultimately up to them to create the version of aging they desire. Maybe someday, no matter what we call people over 65, the words will have fully reclaimed the sense of pride and accomplishment!

For More Information

PBS, the U.S. Agency on Aging, the American Gerontological Society and many other groups focusing on older adults have just gone live with Next Avenue, a website offering a wealth of positive information for people over 50. See "Talkin' 'Bout Our Generation" to read nine myth-busting observations.

Previous article