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Ageism and the Upcoming Presidential Election

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

An interesting article in the Sunday edition of the New York Times on June 15, 2008, pointed out that this election is historic because it deals with the issue of three different prejudices: Race, Gender and, Age. Hillary Clinton’s statement in her concession speech is quoted: “I know there are still barriers and biases out there, often unconscious.” (Hillary Clinton in concession speech of Saturday, June 7, 2008.

Recently, I have come across this unconscious bias with regard to my retirement and planned move to Florida with my wife. I have noticed that over and again, people assume that we are moving to a “retirement community.” Now I understand that this error is understandable because so many people do move to Florida for its retirement communities. However, people do not ask but just assume that is the type of place we are moving to. They make comments like, “Oh, you will have lots of planned activities,” or, “you will be with people you have lots in common with,” etc. The fact is we are moving to a Golf and Sports community made up of people of all ages. There are many couples there with young children who attend the public schools.

Purpose of this Essay:

What I wish to clarify beyond any shadow of a doubt is that, in writing this essay, I am not advocating any candidate in the next presidential election. Rather, I wish to cast light on this major area of prejudice in our nation: Ageism or the prejudice that with age there is only incompetence and illness.

If elected president, John McCain will be 72 upon taking office in 2009. Whether we want to admit it or not, there are many negative attitudes or stereotypes about older people. In fact, in doing some research on the issue of retirement, most of the articles I came across had to do with health, dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, and depression. The other major topic under the heading of retirement was money and how to make it last. It was difficult to find anything related to leading a zestful, happy, and healthy older life. This is not an accident.

Some negative age-related stereotypes are that age has to do with:

1. Death and dying
2. Diminished mental capacity
3. Mental confusion
4. Being stubborn and inflexible
5. Living in the past
6. Being stuck in old ways of thinking
7. Not having any new ideas
8. Being slow to react
9. Being old fashioned
10. Bad memory
11. Dependent
12. Helpless
13. Unproductive
14. Frail

Where do these stereotypes come from?

There are a variety of social forces that shape and reinforce these stereotypical attitudes toward older adults:

1. Television has a powerful effect on peoples’ attitudes toward many things. For instance, “Everybody Loves Raymond,” a delightful television show that I always enjoyed, tends, nevertheless, to portray Raymond’s mother and father as having many of the negative characteristics listed above, including the elderly father being, at times, bumbling, and the elderly mother being intrusive and interfering.

In addition, there have been cases on television where news reporters who are ageing, were replaced by newer, younger, “fresher-looking” faces.

2. Most movies utilize actors who are young. Older actresses tend to disappear from Hollywood movies, replaced by young stars who are nubile and sexy. How often are elderly actresses seen playing starring roles in Hollywood movies?

3. Fashion magazines feature photographs of young male and female models to advertise everything from cars to boats and houses. One example of an advertising campaign was for an anti aging skin cream that compared young women to their incredibly youthful looking mothers. The implication was clear: looking young is essential for a woman to feel valued.

4. It has been suggested that the emphasis on youth in the media is the reason for the dramatic increase in cosmetic surgery. Now, everyone wants to look younger than they are, particularly women. However, men are not immune to the emphasis on youth. Many older male adults are opting for hair transplant surgery along with face lifts and hair dying in order to appear young.

5. Some corporations have a history of retiring executive and managers after they reach fifty and older. Part of this is motivated by a desire to save money. Older executives earn the highest salaries and dollars can be saved by replacing them with younger and newer employees who command much lower salaries. However, there is also the stereotype that younger management and executives will bring fresh and new ideas that older people cannot.

What is troubling about all of this is the danger that prejudice against older adults will become socially acceptable. This is dangerous because when any type of prejudice becomes socially acceptable, discrimination takes hold. At one time it was socially acceptable to segregate African Americans and American Jews. Each group was barred from attending certain exclusive places such as universities, colleges, social clubs, restaurants, beach and golf clubs, and from being hired for many jobs.

Stereotypes are never valid because the individual using them for hateful purposes takes some information that they distort and twist to their own aims.

The real facts are that history is filled with examples of brilliant leaders, scholars, writers, novelists, artists, scientists, and others whose creative energy and work continued into old age. The classic example is Grandma Moses who became an artist in her nineties and continued painting works now worth millions when she was in her 100’s.

Whomever we vote for in the coming presidential campaign should be chosen because we like his record, approve of and agree with his views on world, domestic and economic affairs. We should not vote for or against candidates because of their race, religion, gender, or age.

What are your opinions?

Keep Reading By Author Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.
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