Ageism in American society


American society has been described as maintaining a stereotypic and often negative perception of older adults (Bussed, 1968). This negative or stereotypic


Of aging and aged individuals is readily apparent in such areas as language, media, and humour. For Example, such commonly used phrases as "over the hill" and "don't be an old fuddy-duddy" denote Old age as a period of impotency and incompetency (Nussle, 1982). The term used to describe this Stereotypic and often negative bias against older adults is "ageism" (Butler, 1969). Ageism can be defined as "any attitude, action, or institutional structure which subordinates a Person or group because of age or any assignment of roles in society purely on the basis of age" (Traxler, 1980, p. 4). As an "ism", ageism reflects a prejudice in society against older adults. Ageism, however, is different from other "isms" (sexism, racism etc.), for primarily two Reasons. First, age classification is not static. An individual's age classification changes as one Progresses through the life cycle. Thus, age classification is characterized by continual Change, while the other classification systems traditionally used by society such as race and Gender remains constant. Second, no one is exempt from at some point achieving the status of Old, and therefore, unless they die at an early age, experiencing ageism. The later is an Important distinction as ageism can thus affect the individual on two levels. First, the Individual may be ageist with respect to others. That is s/he may stereotype other people on The basis of age. Second, the individual may be ageist with respect to self. Thus, ageist Attitudes may affect the self concept.

Much research has been conducted concerning ageism. However, the empirical evidence is Inconclusive. Some research demonstrates the existence of ageist attitudes (Gold & Koran, 1959; Kirshenbaum & Duke, 1964a, 1964b; Tuchman & Large, 1953) and other research Does not (Brubaker & Powers, 1976; Schonfield, 1985). This discrepancy is most likely the Result of methodological differences and, in particular, methodological errors. A brief Discussion of the major methodological errors or problems found in ageism research may be Helpful in clarifying this point.

Two additional problems are primarily theoretical in nature. First, ageism research rarely Examines or attempts to understand the causes of ageism. Thus, while much theoretical work Has been conducted concerning the factors contributing to ageism, little empirical research Has been conducted in this area. Second, ageism research rarely examines the interaction Between ageism and other "isms". As many individuals are in a position to experience more Than one prejudice, the interaction between these prejudices needs to be examined.

Relationship Of Ageism: Few studies have examined the impact of ageist Attitude on the self-concept of older adults. This is interesting as this represents the group Most affected by ageist attitudes. Kirshenbaum and Duke (1964a) discuss how elderly People view old age. They conclude that attitudes of the aged towards themselves as a Population is improving. However, it still is hypothesized that as individuals age, their Concept of them becomes less positive. In support of this contention they cite Kunlun (1959) who reported that only 5 percent of older individuals surveyed select middle and later Adulthood as the period of greatest happiness. It is important to remember that many of these Earlier studies used a no representative sample of older adults.

One potential outcome of internalized ageist attitudes in the older adult is a syndrome Described as the social breakdown syndrome (Keepers & Benson, 1973). The social Breakdown syndrome is hypothesized to involve seven stages. First, the individual becomes Susceptible to dependence on external labelling. This is proposed to occur in response to role Loss or the lack of a reference group. For example, retirement or widowhood might make the Individual susceptible. The second stage is dependence on external labelling. If this labelling Is positive, the syndrome continues no further. However, the third stage is characterized by The societal view of the elderly as incompetent or obsolete. If the individual accepts this Negative attitude, he/she falls into the fifth stage of assuming a dependent role. This is Followed by the atrophy of skills and finally the labelling of the self as inadequate, Incompetent and "sick". Therefore, what the social breakdown syndrome describes is the Self-fulfilling nature of negative attitudes concerning age and aging.

Gender and Ageism : Ageism has an impact on both men and women. Studies have been conducted concerning the negative stereotyping of older women and older men. However, most of the ageism research has studied "the older adult". Thus, the differential effect of ageism on men and women has not been well examined.

The sexless older woman is a common theme particularly in humor and greeting cards. Jokes concerning older women usually ascribe to the older woman the following characteristics: she is viewed as lonely, frustrated, and shriveled (Palmore, 1971). Palmore (1971) asserts that these attempts at humor merely reflect real societal attitudes. Hultsch and Deutsch (1981) state, However, that the factor having the greatest impact on sexual activity in old age is the availability of a socially approved and sexually capable partner. Sexual interest and ability generally do not decrease with age for women.

Older women are often viewed as unhealthy. Interestingly, older men are perceived as being healthier than older women (Riley & Foner, 1968) even though, on the average, women live seven years longer than men. Women are also perceived to be hypochondriacal. However, on measures of perceived physical health, no differences have been found between old men and women or between an older and a younger population (Ross, Tait, Brandeberry, Grossberg, & Nakra, 1986). In addition, Ross et al. found that older women rated themselves as having greater body competency than either older men or young adults, both male and female. Therefore, the image of the older woman as unhealthy or hypochondriacal is a myth. In addition to the view that older women are physically unhealthy, older women have been found to be diagnosed with psychological problems 3 to 4 times more often than men (Beeson, 1975). This may represent an ageist bias within psychology and psychiatry. It has been hypothesized that the large number of women seeking psychological support may be a consequence of increased social stress on the older woman. Larson (1978) indicates that subjective well-being is most influenced by environmental factors. The factors having the greatest influence on well-being are hypothesized to be health and socioeconomic status. In 1990, 50 percent of White women had incomes below 646 per month, African-American women had incomes below 419 per month, and Hispanic women had incomes below 426 per month. With a poverty line for seniors of 437.91 per month) in 1990, it is clear that many women live near or below the poverty line.

Therefore, they are at risk for psychological difficulties. Older women are also often viewed as ineffective, dependent, and passive. This represents an extension of the view of all women being ineffective, passive, and dependent, i.e., sexism (Block et al., 1981). Often times, women will find this role difficult to shake. This is particularly true for an older women whose sole identification has been with her husband (Payne & Whittington, 1976). This image of the older woman can also be a self-fulfilling prophecy, particularly for new widows who are finding it difficult to deal with independence (Block, et al., 1981). In addition, as female, women continue to experience sexism during old age and are placed, thus, in double jeopardy. Interestingly, women's self image shows greater improvement with age as compared to men (Clark & Anderson, 1967). It is hypothesized to result from increased social contacts that are characteristic of older women. Lowenthal, Thurnher, and Chiribaga (1975) propose that older women's self image improves as they become more assertive, less fearful, and less dependent. Nuessel (1982) has examined the language of ageism.

Ageism is readily apparent in language against both men and women. The terms with which older women are described are representative of some of the more common stereotypes of older men and women. For example, the term little old lady suggests incompetency and impotency based upon age and gender. Old hag or old witch commonly refer to a woman who is physically unpleasant to look at and who has a disagreeable personality. Old men are commonly described by such terms as old coot and codger. These terms suggest that old men are slightly odd or quaint. The commonly used term, dirty old man, suggests some sort of unnatural sexual perversion in older men. Therefore, much of society's negative attitudes are reflected in its language. Language may be more negatively ageist with respect to women than to men. Nuessel (1982) states, "ageist vocabulary for women is more derisive because it represents them as repugnant and disgusting . This may represent the double jeopardy for older women as they are subject to both ageism and sexism.

In summary, both men and women experience ageism in the form of stereotyping. In addition, women experience not only ageism but sexism. Men are stereotyped as increasingly feminine, and women as asexual, unhealthy, and dependent.

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