Stereotyping the Elderly

Creating a dehumanizing, negative stereotype is a precursor to harming a demographic segment of a population.  Lack of respect displayed toward older Americans and blamed heaped on them for everything from traffic jams to bankrupting the health care system are evidence of creeping ageism in the United States.

While teaching a class a number of years ago on racism and groupism in general at Kansas State University, I found a full-page Newsweek  photo of nursing home residents sitting in chairs, holding their arms above their heads.  They were being led in exercises by a young woman.  The caption read, “Geezer Boom.”

These older Americans were characterized in the article as helpless invalids who are a burden to younger members of society.  This kind of portrayal of the elderly is pervasive in the mass media and is becoming fixed in the psyche of the under-65 population.  During the recent debates on health care, we heard “unplugging granny” over and over.  This metaphor is supportive of the notion that the fruits of a long life are, at the end, intubation and ventilation.  As I will discuss with very good evidence in a later post, nothing could be further from the truth.

Epithets are evidence of isms such as racism, sexism, gayism and ageism.  I find myself having to confront friends, students, and relatives for using terms like “geezer,” “codger” and “coot.”  These terms may seem funny but they are disrespectful, harmful and insulting.  I have the same concern about using “granny” in the context of plugging and unplugging.

Ageism is characterized by blaming, epithets, infantilization and neglect.  If older Americans can be reduced to being thought of as nothing more than a “pain in the neck,” it will be acceptable to commoditize them as revenue producing objects to be placed in sub-human, profitable, nursing home conditions.