Why do we older Americans face job discrimination?
Why are people over a certain age, especially women, hardly ever featured in movies?
Why do greeting card companies sell us birthday cards that insult old people?
Here is my answer. American society stigmatizes aging and older adults. The ages that our society likes the most are from 20 to 40. We give people black balloons on their 40th birthday to say, “It’s all downhill now!” Instead they should that say, “Be all you can be now that you have 40 behind you!” Our society even avoids the word “old.” They call us seniors as though we are about to graduate from high school.
Be all you can be now that you have 40 behind you!
The term “ageism” is only 45 years old; Dr. Robert Butler, a prominent geriatric psychiatrist and author, coined it. He defined ageism as “systemic, societal discrimination against older adults.” He was thinking of discrimination in employment, quality of health care, and portrayal in advertising and the media. Even in the early 1970’s, he wanted the public to recognize that certain accepted policies and practices are oppressive to older people—just as certain policies are oppressive to women, to people of color, and to other groups in our society.
For several years I have admired the research of Dr. Becca Levy, a professor of epidemiology and psychology at Yale University. She focuses on how we internalize ageism – creating self-stigma.
When we hear about an “elderly man” on the evening news, we may think about someone who is frail, helpless and forgetful—common stereotypes. Words like wise or kind are often overshadowed by the mainly negative sentiments. It turns out that this also influences our own longevity, personal health and performance when we reach old age.
We can overcome the self-stigma of being old with positive images!
Now here is the tricky part. As a young child, we accept old people as weak or forgetful and project the stigma outward. It does not apply to us. But then, later in life, we realize that we are the ones getting old! We try to hide it, avoiding “coming out” as an old person! As Levy points out, “to eradicate ageism will require addressing the enemy within.”
Last year Levy and co-workers published a ground-breaking finding: older people (average age 81) perform significantly better in tasks like getting up out of a chair for several weeks after they were unknowingly shown positive words such as “spry” and “creative”. The words had been displayed on a monitor too briefly for people to consciously read them – a method used in subliminal advertising.
In other words, we can overcome the self-stigma of being old with positive images. We can do better than we thought!
Bette Davis once said, “Old age is not for sissies.” I agree! The huge burden of ageism in our society and the negative stereotypes that we carry—all add up to an additional load.
How can we take steps to reduce that extra load? The burden makes us less healthy, less happy and less strong than necessary. To succeed all generations need to work together to challenge these stereotypes; if we are so fortunate to live a long life, they will hurt us all.
 Levy, B.R., (2001). Eradication of Ageism Requires Addressing the Enemy Within. The Gerontologist, 41(5): 578-579.
 Levy, B. R., Pilver, C., Chung, P., & Slade, M .D. (2014). Subliminal Strengthening Improving Older Individuals’ Physical Function Over Time With an Implicit-Age-Stereotype Intervention. Psychological Science, 25, 2127-2135.
Dr. Gloria Gordon is a co-founder and on the board of directors of the St. Louis, MO Village. She is 92 years old, and a retired psychologist who conducted research on the way occupational stress and shift work affect the health and well-being of hourly workers. Earlier she worked as a McGraw-Hill science textbook editor. She took part in founding the St. Louis Committee for Nuclear Information and the related Baby Tooth Survey. She sparked the STL Village effort in St. Louis, MO in 2011 after learning of the village movement around the country. She brings to the STL Village Board her experience in social movements, plus a passion for empowering people in the second half of life with more options for healthy living, community participation and creativity.
STL Village, the first Village in Missouri, is a member of the Village to Village Network, a national organization that collaborates to maximize the growth, impact and sustainability of individual Villages and the Village Movement. The Network provides expert guidance, resources and support to help communities establish and maintain their Villages. The Village model is a consumer-driven, affordable option for older adults who wish to remain in their homes and communities as they age. The Village movement aims to change the experience of aging. As part of the Village Movement, the Village to Village Network aims to resist ageism and to think outside the box about where and how we want to live in the second half of our lives. Please visit us at www.vtvnetwork.org.