Ageism in America
The term "ageism" was coined in 1969 by Robert Butler, the first director of the National Institute on Aging. He used the word to describe the process of systematic stereotyping of people because they are old. Ageism is a term that is similar to other isms' in society, such as racism and sexism. "Ageism allows other generations to see older people as different from themselves; thus they subtly cease to identify with their elders as human beings" (Butler, 1975). All people, including the young as well as the old, can be discriminated against based on age. Today ageism is more broadly defined as any prejudice or discrimination against or in favor of an age group (Palmore, 1990). The Census Bureau estimates that the percentage of the population over 65 will jump from 11.4 percent in 2000 to 20.7 percent in 2050. During those 50 years the population between 45 and 65 will increase nearly 50 percent, but the population between 65 and 85 will increase nearly 114 percent. Faced with these hard to ignore statistics, America is still a culture which intensely denies death. We cringe at the mere thought of death and go to enormous lengths to avoid anything that would remind us of our mortality. Americans want to be forever young and never grow old and die. There is no place in our society for old age and death. This way of thinking is passed to younger members of our society by family members and by the media with the use of negative images of the elderly. Older Americans are portrayed as senile, frail or disabled in some way. The result of these ideas is that the elderly essentially become invisible to younger generations. Without value, there is no need to show respect to your elders, and most young people avoid contact with the elderly all together. The consequences of ageism are similar to those associated with other forms of discrimination. People subjected to discrimination tend to adopt the leading group's negative image and to behave in ways that conform to that negative image (Palmore, 1990). In addition, the leading group's negative image typically includes a set of behavioral expectations that define what a person can do and what they can not do. In the case of ageism, the elderly are expected to be sexless, intellectually set in their ways, forgetful and unproductive, but they are also expected to be passive and compliant and do it all with a smile. Negative responses to these expectations can include; acceptance, denial and avoidance. Acceptance of the negative image of the elderly that is perpetuated by American society can result in a person changing their normal behaviors and habits. A person who is otherwise very active may reduce or stop social activities in an attempt to conform to these negative images. They may not seek proper medical treatment or they may accept poverty. The internalization of these negative images can result in the loss of self esteem, can cause self hatred, shame and depression. Denial can also have negative consequences. Having to lie about your age can severely wear down your self-confidence. Continual attempts to 'pass' for a member of the younger, dominant group in society can be as harmless as using skin creams, hair dyes or cosmetics. More extreme and potentially dangerous attempts to look younger and fit include cosmetic surgery and chemical treatments to the skin. While these attempts to hold back the hands of time are widespread, the quest for eternal youth can become inappropriate and, in the end, self defeating. Avoidance of the negative images of growing older in America takes on many shapes. It is becoming more and more common for the elderly to segregate themselves from society by moving into age restricted communities. Some choose to isolate themselves completely and never venture out of their homes. Alcoholism and drug addiction are commonplace and, in extreme cases, suicide is considered a viable option to growing...
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Palmore, Erdman (1990) Ageism. New York. Springer Publishing Company 2nd ed.1999
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