By RA Monaco
There are plenty of reasons health conscious people—particularly younger Facebook users—should make it a conscious habit to avoid internalizing today’s unsettling culture of ageism. To start, having negative stereotypes about older adults has been associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and, in later years heart attacks according to a 2009 article in Psychological Science.
Researchers have also found that those who’ve held more negative stereotypes about older adults had a 30 percent greater decline in their memory 40 years later, compared with people who viewed older age more favorably.
It’s never too soon or too late to begin doing what you can to overcome the harmful psycho-social culture of age prejudice that’s being continuously pulsed through today’s marketing, main stream media and now, social media.
To be clear, we’re talking about “implicit ageism” which, according to Becca R. Levy, associate professor at the Yale School of Public Health, is the thoughts that all humans have about the attributes and behaviors of the elderly.
Evolving from this sad cultural phenomenon may not be so easy
As someone who has experienced firsthand the prejudice of ageism, read a few books and numerous journal articles on the subject, and who’d like to think of himself as having consciously evolved from this sad cultural phenomenon—that may not be so easy. So, in the interests of those who might share pangs of ageist guilty from time to time—let me share a recent experience.
A few times per year, I make it over to the Veterans Hospital in Great Lakes where, by the way, I happen to receive excellent care. Anyway, when I go there it’s usually an all day trek. So, rather than go to the cafeteria, I like to stop in at their subway-styled sandwich shop. The veggies are fresh and they really pile it on—half a sandwich and I’m good. The price is right and it’s the best deal in town, as far as I’m concerned. Now, this past week I get there and no line—just two people in front of me—great! A pleasant couple in their early 80’s would’ve been my guess—no cane, walker or scooter and well groomed. As I stood behind them waiting to order and listening, my impatience begins to well up inside. Increasingly, my own ageist intolerance grows and though I said nothing, I consciously had to overcome appearing impatient or anxious. Sadly, I couldn’t deny feeling an inner impatience almost the entire time I stood in line. Yes, I was hungry but there was more to it. Every decision was like a board meeting—questions, deliberation, slowly, step-by-step, inch-by-inch, we build one, to-be-shared, sandwich. “Would you cut it in half please?” Then, chips? “What do you have…?” They’re right in front of you—the jerk in my head goes. Would you like a drink? “What do you have?” Probably can’t see the big fountain next to the chips—says the mean little voice in my head. “Could we have an extra cup with ice please?” Of course, saw that coming—says the sarcastic voice in my head. Now, by the time this healthy and independent looking senior couple had paid, gotten their sandwich and were on their way, the line had grown out the door and down the hall. You get the picture.
Beyond this test of my personal shortcomings, there was something else—far more important—about that experience I really wished everyone could have witnessed. It was the warm, attentive and patient disposition of the cashier who showed an uncommon demeanor in doing her job, assisting, facilitating and dealing with the public—in this instance, seniors.
She wasn’t overly kind or too sweet, but patient. She was helpful and attentive, yet she didn’t rush them or make them feel pushed to make their choices. Most of all, she was professional and not ageist. I wished that I had gotten her name because she deserves recognition for putting on a clinic on how to compassionately perform her job while manifesting dignity for the customer. In so many ways, she was a model to be emulated by us all.
Frankly, I’m ashamed of myself for my less than virtuous impulses—maybe I need to go spend more time in that line. But how did I get like this—I’m on the sunny side of sixty!
Never too soon or too late to battle the negative age stereotypes
The affects of ageism spans a life time and it’s never too soon or too late to begin to battle the negative age stereotypes that have been so deeply imprinted on our culture. Even if you’re in mid-life or already a senior, your health and well being can either improve or be negatively impacted.
According to a 2012 research letter reported to the Journal of the American Medical Association, people 70 years and over with positive age stereotypes were 44 percent more likely to fully recover from a severe disability than were those with negative age stereotypes.
The nature of age stereotyping and prejudice is insidious because it can operate without intention to harm or conscious awareness according to Prof. Levy who serves as director of the Social and Behavioral Sciences Division at Yale University.
Ageism is unique because everyone—unless met with misfortune—will eventually join this group. Also, because there are no hate groups targeting the elderly as there are that target members of religious and racial and ethnic groups. That was, however, until social scientists decided to see how people over 60 were portrayed on social networking sites.
Researchers at Yale weren’t prepared for the startling number of young people on Facebook that berate older people—in a word, “disturbing” according to Levy, associate professor of epidemiology and psychology.
The collective study done by the Yale School of Public Health, the University of California, Hunter College and the Hopkins School in New Haven was reported in the journal “The Gerontologist.” Using a Facebook search engine, they identified 84 publically accessible groups created by people age 20 to 29 and found that 74 percent berated older individuals.
While the hypothesis was that researchers would find some negative portrayals, the level of ageist-hostility on some sites was both a “surprise and disturbing” to Prof. Levy, whose research looks at how negative stereotypes of the elderly affects health and functioning—and how positive stereotypes have a positive effect.
Thirty-seven percent of the 25,489 Facebook members analyzed in the study advocated banning seniors from public activities such as driving and shopping.
Physical debilitation was the focus of nearly half the posts by these groups describing older people. A quote from the study related: “Old people are a pain in the (expletive deleted) as far as I’m concerned and they are a burden on society. I hate everything about them from their hair nets in the rain to their white Velcro sneakers. They are cheap, they smell of (expletive deleted)…they are senile, they complain about everything, they couldn’t hear a dump truck…”
In another quote, a group said: “Old people do not contribute to modern society at all. Their single and only meaning is to nag and to (expletive deleted) moan. Therefore, any OAP (Old Age Pensioner) that pass (sic) the age of 69 should immediately face a fire (sic) squad.”
Facebook’s Community Standards don’t mention age though they warn against singling out individuals based on race, ethnicity, national origin, relation, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability or disease. Where’s the harm in adding three more letters—age—to those standards?
Importantly, Facebook has the potential to break down barriers and maybe even help reverse this culture of age prejudice, though the social media site seems to be setting up new ones according to Levy. In fairness, there are also recent studies that show Facebook can help older users stave off memory loss, depression and help them feel more socially connected.
There is little chance that Facebook will be winning ethics awards anytime soon, particularly given their recently publicized secret mood manipulation experiments. However, the social media site could provide a powerful mechanism to increase exposure to positive age stereotypes across a life span and change, or at least contribute to changing, the implicit negative age stereotypes of our culture with increased positive exposure.
After all, would people object to seeing more frequent representation of people that had notable late life accomplishments like John Glenn, Chuck Yeager, Gold Meir or Noah Webster for example, in their Facebook News Feed—the main list of status updates, messages, and photos you see when you open Facebook on your computer or phone.
Intervention can make negative views more positive
Studies have demonstrated that an intervention with exposure to exemplars of admired older people like Oprah Winfrey or Pope Frances as examples can make a negatively viewed group like seniors appear more positive.
Psychological scientists are only just now beginning to study traits that improve with age. Compared with younger people, we know that older people are able to stand back and see the big picture; they tend to be more knowledgeable, have more experience and greater emotional stability.
So, maybe it’s time to start challenging our deeply set cultural age prejudices and change perceptions of what older people can do—Chuck Yeager was 75 years old when he made his last flight as a military consultant and John Glenn was 78 when he carried out his nine-day space mission in 1998.
At this moment, it’s an open question: Will the growing number of older adults cause an increase or decrease in ageism?
Our history suggests that reducing discrimination and prejudice is achieved with social recognition and political action but that change will require the efforts of older people too—stand in line, pay attentions and be patient, we all have much to learn and plenty to change.