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Saying “No” to Stereotypes About Aging

Alissa Sauer
By Alissa SauerSeptember 20, 2018

Ageism is the discrimination, prejudice and stereotyping against people for their age. An everyday challenge for seniors and one of the most socially “normalized” of any prejudice, it can have physical impacts on seniors, potentially increasing the risk of dementia and shortening lifespan.

Learn more about the effects of negative aging stereotypes on seniors and what we can do to combat ageism in our society.

The Benefits of a Positive Outlook on Aging

It’s no secret that seniors face an uphill battle when it comes to stereotypes about their age. However, long gone are the days of the stereotypical “old person.” Today’s seniors are redefining what it means to age well and research is backing up their attitudes, showing that a positive outlook has many benefits – including a decreased risk of dementia and greater longevity.

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A recent study surveyed more than 500,000 Americans online and found that as people age, they continue to feel younger. William Chopik, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University and lead researcher, says, “60-year-olds felt like they were 46. 70-year-olds felt like they were 53. 80-year-olds felt like they were 65… People know that they are aging, but they are evaluating themselves and their lives and reporting feeling about 20% younger than their current age.”

He also found that the threshold for “old age” continues to change as one ages, so a teen may believe that 50 to be “old,” but a 50-year-old would consider 70 “old” and so on. “Part of that might arise from not wanting to be considered an older adult,” Dr. Chopik says. “As a result, people could be perpetually pushing what is considered an older adult into the future.”

Research shows that positive feelings about aging and oneself is what results in a decreased risk of dementia and greater longevity.

Reframing Aging and Stereotypes

So, if seniors are feeling good about aging and there’s research to support that positive messaging, why are there so many negative stereotypes about aging in society?

Becca Levy, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Yale, conducted a study and found that “Children as young as three or four have already taken in the aging stereotypes of their culture. These stereotypes are communicated to children through many sources, ranging from stories to social media. Individuals of all ages can benefit from bolstering their positive images of aging.”

Dr. Chopik adds, “Negative views about aging are communicated to us early in life, through books, media and movies, and what our family and friends tell us. These attitudes are present and pervasive already in childhood, so naturally, it’s hard to enact meaningful change to these attitudes — but that’s what we’re trying to do at the moment.”

The National Academies of Sciences’ Forum on Aging, Disability and Independence gathered experts on this topic to offer suggestions for fighting negative stereotypes about aging in our society:

1. Build relationships with more seniors.

The best way to fight negative stereotypes is to meet more seniors on your own. Interact with people, understand their life story and their unique struggles. Gain wisdom that can only be learned from a life well lived.

2. Embrace new images of people who don’t fit the stereotype.

Consider the seniors who do not fit the stereotype of an older person. This could be a cherished friend, a famous person or a group of older athletes.

3. Put yourself in their shoes.

Once you have a grasp on what their day is like, think about how that will make you feel. How would you feel if you felt people were looking down on you because of your age?

4. Replace stereotypes.

Become aware of your own stereotypes, then fight them on a personal level. Instead of assuming a senior needs help, consider asking them if they would like assistance. Alter your own assumptions first.

5. Understand the challenges seniors face every day.

Think about a particular senior and walk through their day. What is it like for them to be characterized by damaging stereotypes?

How have negative stereotypes about aging affected you, a parent or senior loved one? What can you do to encourage a more positive approach to aging? We’d like to hear your stories and thoughts in the comments below.

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Alissa Sauer
Alissa Sauer
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