Greeting-card and novelty companies call them “Over the Hill” products: the 50th Birthday Coffin Gift Boxes featuring prune juice and anti-aging soap; the “Old Coot” and “Old Biddy” bobblehead dolls; the birthday cards mocking the mobility, intellect and sex drive of the no-longer-young.
Many Americans chuckle at such humor. Others see it as offensive, as one more sign of pervasive ageism in America.
It’s a bias some also see in substandard conditions at nursing homes, in pension-plan cutbacks by employers, in the relative invisibility of the elderly on television shows and in advertisements.
“Daily we are witness to, or even unwitting participants in, cruel imagery, jokes, language, and attitudes directed at older people,” contends Dr. Robert Butler, president the International Longevity Center-USA and the person who coined the term “ageism” 35 years ago.
Concerns of elderly move higher on national agenda
That ageism exists, in a society captivated by youth culture and taut-skinned good looks, is scarcely debatable. But as the oldest of the 77 million baby boomers approach their 60s, the elderly and their concerns will inevitably move higher on the national agenda.
Already, there is lively debate as to whether ageism will ease or grow worse in the coming decades of boomer senior citizenship. Erdman Palmore, a professor emeritus at Duke University who has written or edited more than a dozen books on aging, counts himself — cautiously — among the optimists.
“One can say unequivocally that older people are getting smarter, richer and healthier as time goes on,” Palmore said. “I’ve dedicated most of my life to combating ageism, and it’s tempting for me to see it everywhere. ... But I have faith that as science progresses, and reasonable people get educated about it, we will come to recognize ageism as the evil it is.”
Palmore, 74, lives what he preaches — challenging the stereotypes of aging by skydiving, whitewater rafting, bicycling his age in miles each birthday. He recently got a tattoo on his shoulder, though the image he chose was the relatively discreet symbol of the American Humanist Association.
“What makes me mad is how aging, in our language and culture, is equated with deterioration and impairment,” Palmore said. “I don’t know how we’re going to root that out, except by making people more aware of it.”
Number of seniors expected to double
To the extent that ageism persists, there will soon be many more potential targets. The number of Americans 65 and older is projected to double over the next three decades from 35.9 million to nearly 70 million, comprising 20 percent of the population in 2030 compared to less than 13 percent now.
The 85-and-over population is the fastest growing segment — projected to grow from 4 million in 2000 to 19 million in 2050 as part of an unprecedented surge in longevity. Americans now turning 65 will live, on average, an additional 18 years.
Some researchers believe that ageism, in the form of negative stereotypes, directly affects longevity. In a study published by the American Psychological Association, Yale School of Public Health professor Becca Levy and her colleagues concluded that old people with positive perceptions of aging lived an average of 7.5 years longer than those with negative images of growing older.
Levy said many Americans start developing stereotypes about the elderly during childhood, reinforce them throughout adulthood, and enter old age with attitudes toward their own age group as unfavorable as younger people’s attitudes.
“It’s possible to overcome the stereotypes, but they often operate without people’s awareness,” Levy said. “Look at all the talk about plastic surgery, Botox — the message is, 'Don’t get old.'’
Bias on the job
For thousands of American workers, it’s the same message they claim to hear on the job. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has received more than 19,000 age discrimination complaints in each of the past two years, and has helped win tens of millions of dollars in settlements.
However, attorneys say age discrimination often is hard to prove. Only about one-seventh of the EEOC age cases were settled to the complainant’s benefit.
“I didn’t give up,” he said. “A lot of my contemporaries give up too soon.”
Seventy-eight-year-old Catherine Roberts stays active with New York City’s Joint Public Affairs Committee for Older Adults, a coalition that encourages seniors to advocate on their own behalf on legislative and community issues.
“I don’t have time to get old,” said Roberts, who came to New York from Maine in 1955. “I’m too busy.”
Yet despite her upbeat outlook, she resents how some of her peers are treated. “We’re a culture that worships youth,” she said. “Seniors are getting pushed aside. I see people in my building whose families ignore them — they fall through the cracks.”
More geriatric specialists needed
For many older people, ageism surfaces most painfully in the context of health care. A report by the Alliance for Aging Research, presented to a Senate committee last year, said the elderly are less likely to receive preventive care and often lack access to doctors trained in their needs.
Only about 10 percent of U.S. medical schools require work in geriatric medicine. The American Geriatrics Society says there are only about 7,600 physicians nationwide certified as geriatric specialists — not enough to meet demand and far below the 36,000 the society says will be needed by 2030.
While the society says the best way to attract more doctors to the field is to make Medicare practice more lucrative, some experts believe that many medical students also have negative attitudes toward the elderly that should be challenged.
In one such effort, the National Institute on Aging, working with Johns Hopkins Medical School and a Baltimore museum, teamed elderly people and first-year medical students in an art program in which they drew, made collages, sang songs and shared stories. A survey showed the students gained a more positive view of seniors and of geriatrics as a possible specialty.
Ageism also manifests itself in advertising. Though adults of all ages drink beer and buy cars, for example, TV and print ads for those products almost invariably feature youthful actors and models.
According to AARP, the lobbying group for people 50 and over, Americans in that age bracket account for half of all consumer spending but are targeted by just 10 percent of marketing. The dynamic is particularly potent in television, where network executives gear programming toward 18-to-34-year-olds because advertisers will pay more to reach those viewers.
“When an older person sees a product targeted to a younger person, they’re willing to buy it, but young people will not buy a product targeted to older person,” said Jim Fishman, group publisher for AARP Publications.
Fishman, who oversees AARP’s three magazines, predicts advertisers will increasingly tilt their messages toward older consumers as the baby boomers enter their 60s.
“By and large, the wealth that resides in the older segment of the population is disposable wealth — the kids are done with college, the mortgage is paid off,” Fishman said. “This older market is huge and feeling largely ignored.”
Dealing with age
Looking ahead, Fishman foresees people of all ages, elderly included, gaining the ability to look more attractive than in the past thanks to developments ranging from Botox to fitness programs. He also expects a more deep-rooted change in society’s view of aging as the 65-and-older ranks are filled with increasing numbers of computer-savvy boomers, eager for civic engagement and lifelong education programs.
Still, David Wolfe, whose book “Ageless Marketing” advises advertisers how to reach over-50 consumers, says ageism is likely to persist. “There will always be people in society who can’t come to terms with other people’s aging because they can’t come to terms with their own aging,” he said.
Paul Kleyman, editor of the American Society on Aging’s bimonthly newspaper, has testified before Congress that ageism is common in the mass media. He tells of a magazine editor who wanted fewer stories about “prune faces,” and of a Chicago talk radio station whose staff was told to screen out “old-sounding” callers.
Kleyman also detects some positive trends, including a growing number of newspapers assigning reporters to cover aging-related issues on a regular basis.
“The drive in the news industry is for younger readers, but don’t just ignore the loyal older readers you have,” he said. “We should be encouraging society to be receptive to a more active older generation, instead of looking at boomers as a burden that’s going to drain the nation.”
The short-term future of ageism may depend in large part on that question — whether or not baby boomers are viewed by younger Americans as a rival for economic resources and political clout as Society Security and Medicare costs rise.
“At the individual level of how people are treated, negative ageism is probably going decline a little,” said Robert Binstock, professor of aging and public policy at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine in Cleveland. “But at the societal level it’s quite possible we’ll see an increase in ageism, a sense of, ’Wow, what an unsustainable burden older people are going to be.”’
Bob Robinson, 88, of Aurora, Colo., a former director of services for the aging in Colorado, said he has encountered a generational gap while lobbying legislators on senior issues.
“The politicians consider that with Social Security and Medicare and the other advantages that seniors have, we’re in pretty good shape,” Robinson said. “It’s true for a lot of us, but not for all of us. Many seniors worked for small businesses that had no retirement system.”
Bobbie Sackman of New York City’s Council of Senior Centers and Services agrees.
Catering to all
“Boomers are not all white, middle-class suburbanites,” she said. “You will have the older people with greater resources, and that will in some ways change the image of aging. But you will also have those with less resources, coming from groups that already had faced discrimination, and now they will have the age thing added to the mix.”
John Rother, policy director for the AARP, said the boomers, by their very numbers, are bound to change the public perception of aging.
“It will be more visible,” he said. “People will survive longer, in better health. ... They’ll feel the market should cater to them, the political system should cater to them, as it has their whole lives.”
Whatever their political clout, the tens of millions of boomers will find that ageism is a unique form of bias in that it’s universal — potentially affecting all who live long enough.
“Everyone has a vested interest in eradicating this prejudice,” wrote Richard Butler, the International Longevity Center president, in a recent briefing paper. “We all aspire to live to be old, and consequently we all must work to create a society where old age is respected, if not honored, and where persons who have reached old age are not marginalized.”