What is the Image of Aging?
Images of aging can be both personal (our own) and societal (opinions of many people in our society). Our personal opinions can influence what the larger society things about the elderly, and what the larger society thinks can influence our personal views. If we believe that being old inevitably means being sick, disabled and unhappy, then we may become afraid that large numbers of elderly will somehow "use up" medical and social services and want to limit their use of these services. On the other hand, if we were to see only images of the retired young-old living in luxury then we might think that the elderly do not need any societal support because they are rich. Of course, neither of these two beliefs are true. The elderly are a diverse group in terms of their mental and physical health, their economic resources and their social lives.
We all have images of ourselves. These images includes both knowledge of our chronological age and our "subjective age" (how old we feel). While society may consider people to be old at sixty or sixty-five, many people at this age or older do not feel that they are old (similarly there are many people in their thirties or forties who do feel old). Even when individuals are in their seventies or eighties— and consider others in this group to be old— they may think of themselves as being young or middle-aged. For some people, changes in physical health (heart disease, stroke, change in physical function) or changes in social role (widowed, retirement) signal a transition to old age and to a new lifestyle. But this is not always the case. There are many older adults who feel "younger" at retirement then they did while working and there are those older adults whose young, subjective image is not
changed by illness or disability. If someone develops a disability in their teens, twenties or thirties, they do not think of themselves as being old because of their disability; similarly an older adult can separate illness or disability from how they feel inside.
Just like you have an image of yourself (i.e. friendly, fun-loving, funny, open-minded) older adults also have self-images. There is evidence that self-image is pretty stable throughout life. Older people may feel that they have changed in terms of health as they have gotten older, but they generally do not feel that they have changed in terms of personal characteristics. When you look at the images of older people on this web page, or when you see older people in your family or neighborhood, how do you think they feel about themselves? Do you think that if you talked to an older person about themselves their feelings are a lot different then yours?
Since we all live within a society, we have an image of the way the rest of society perceives us. Older people may feel that they are well-treated or that they are poorly treated. This varies from society to society, and even within societies. Sometimes older people feel that society has more than one attitude. For example, it is not uncommon for older people to feel that they have experienced a lack of respect, loss of authority and social standing but are treated well by society in other ways. A study in Norway found that the majority of elderly Norwegians felt that life had improved in terms of their material and economic status and that more care and assistance was available to them but that their social standing and esteem had deteriorated. Interestingly, in this same study younger Norwegians believed that they would have fewer resources available to them when they are old. What do you think might cause this attitude?
Ageism is a type of discrimination that many people are not aware of. Ageism can include denying older people medical care because they are "too old to benefit," even though care could save lives or reduce disability.
Stereotypes are generally the result of a lack of correct information or misinformation. Some of the most commonly held negative stereotypes about the elderly include:
Throughout this web page there is enough information to show that these stereotypes are not true for the elderly as a group. There may be some older adults who do not enjoy life, are sick or who are a burden— but the same can be said about people of all ages.
- The elderly are all alike
- Old people are sad and "lose their minds"
- Elderly people are isolated and lonely
- Being old means being physically disabled
- The elderly don’t enjoy life
- Someone has to take care of the elderly— they just cannot take care of themselves
- The elderly are a burden, they don’t do anything worthwhile
- Old people have stopped learning new things
Negative stereotypes can influence our thoughts about the elderly. They may cause us to consider the elderly different and separate from everyone else. They may cause us to think of the elderly as less worthy than other groups of people. They may cause us think that we do not enjoy the company of the elderly. They may cause us to feel afraid of our own aging. They may cause us to see resources as for "them" or for "us."
Our negative thoughts may cause us to behave differently towards the elderly. They may cause us to ignore the elderly or treat them as sickly when they are not. They may cause us to agree to policies and practices that we would not agree to if we didn’t hold these stereotypes. They may cause us to exclude the elderly from activities or force people to retire before they would like.
Studies of intergenerational programs show that participation not only improves knowledge and attitudes of children and teenagers about the elderly, but that they also change behaviors. Students who participate are more likely to be willing to share, help and cooperate with elderly persons. Studies also report that both young and old find these programs rewarding.