Old People Too Practice "Ageism"?

Old People Too Practice "Ageism"?

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

There is quite a bit of awareness about such "isms" as the "racism," "sexism" or "classism," but lesser awareness exists about "ageism." Yet, ageism is widely prevalent in our society.

Even the media, which is generally sensitive about racial or sexist stereotype, tends to be often unaware of negative age stereotypes and jokes about older people.

A stereotype is a set of ideas, beliefs and attitudes an individual possesses about other people. We carry many stereotypes in our head, which partly determine how we treat other people. We acquire such stereotypes from our culture or subculture by age 3 or 4. Parents and siblings who acquired these stereotypes in their own childhood transmit them to the newcomer in the family.

At a senate hearing in 2002, Doris Roberts, the Emmy-award winning actress of Everybody Loves Raymond, herself seventy-plus said this: "My peers and I are portrayed as dependent, helpless, unproductive and demanding rather than deserving."

In a survey conducted by Dr. Erdman Palmore of Duke University, 80% of the respondents over age 60 had experienced a negative age stereotype from others. Six out of ten respondents in this survey were told jokes that poke fun at older people. Three out of ten reported being ignored or not taken seriously because of their age. Some assume that if you are old, you might have some mental and physical impairment.

When I was studying for my doctoral degree in Sweden, a "twenty-something" student in my dorm one evening ventilated his frustration about a couple of the national leaders who were at the helm of the government at the time. He couldn't stand them or their old ideas, stilted approach and lack of creativity.

Continuing his barrage of criticism, my dorm mate consoled himself by saying one shouldn't expect too much from these "old and demented" leaders of his country. I asked him how old they were. They were only in their forties! Here is a "twenty-something" berating about the demented "forty-something." How long did he think it would take before he too caught up with them?"

I was amazed by his daunting assumption that no one over forty should be allowed to lead others. He was pretty vocal about it and totally unaware that I came from a country where you wouldn't be considered eligible for national leadership unless you had crossed sixties! In Indian Parliament, perhaps a majority of the legislators are sixty and beyond. Around that time (if my memory serves me right!), our prime minister was in his eighties!

In psychology, we have a concept called, "archetype." Having discussed a stereotype, let's discuss an "archetype." Archetypes are not specific to a culture; they are universal and were formed early in the beginnings of the human society. They are much older than stereotypes. Archetypes are the images and concepts that we all share as a human race. They are deeply embedded in our psyche.

Why this talk about archetypes? Because, archetypes do favor old age. According to the legendary psychologist Carl Jung, the archetype of a teacher or a wise man is an old woman or a man with long gray hair and flowing gray beard. When you think of a medicine woman or a shaman, the picture likely to be evoked in the mind is an age-weathered wrinkled face and a shriveled body. It is true in many societies and cultures.

Older societies respected older people and viewed them as individuals who possessed wisdom and valuable experience. Older people thrived in presence of such positive stereotypes.

Research shows that older people who are exposed to positive stereotypes and have good family and social support have significantly better physical and mental abilities.

In today's society of fast technological change, a physical and mental decline is hastened where an aging person eased out of employment, alienated from the mainstream society, children relocated elsewhere, eating canned food and crackers on social security checks, and swallowing on average nine pills a day resulting in such side effects as insomnia, confusion and memory impairment.

In spite of less-than-encouraging circumstances, the majority of older people is healthy, self-sufficient and interestingly has larger assets than the young generation. Guess, which one is the fastest growing population of Internet users? It is none other than the senior population. Seniors also give more time as volunteers for community services than does any other age group.

Even older people have negative stereotypes about old age. Some older people have more negative stereotypes about old age than even the younger people do. Such stereotypes have an impact on longevity. In another article, I cited Becca Levy's research, which shows that negative self-perception reduces lifespan by seven and one half years!

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Copyright 2003, Mind Publications 
Posted June 2003


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