The Greatest Chapter

Redefining the later years

Ageist Images in the Media: The "Old Person Date"

Why "harmless" media portrayals of older adults may actually be quite harmful.

On a recent episode of The Bachelorette (a week night dating reality show), Andi and her date JJ "grew old together.” This production entailed putting on makeup and clothing that highlighted every stereotyped notion of growing old–and the two subsequently went on an "old person date" to a park and carousel. They were covered in age spots, wrinkles, and had grey or balding hair (everything our "fountain of youth" media advertisements speak out against!); they wore supportive sneaker shoes and sweaters (highlighting the idea that fashion is only for the young); and they walked hunched over, even having Parkinsonian movements at times (highlighting physical disability with aging). There were numerous comments made by both Andi and JJ regarding attractiveness ("I can't even look at you!") and the highlight of the date seemed to be the absurdity of doing cartwheels and playing football competently while dressed as older adults (their giddiness in doing this was nothing short of childlike).

Granted, this date seemed lighthearted and fun (if not absolutely benign) to most fans, I imagine. But, at the same time, media clips such as this one serve to remind and reinforce negative age stereotypes, and even promote the status of the power group–younger and middle-aged adults. 

Ageist stereotypes at play: key quotes from the episode

"Who are these old people, walking around in old people clothes, hunched over?"

I'd invite you to swap any other minority population for "old people" and it is clear how offensive and deindividualizing this statement is. To me it feels like the unconscious and subtle communications of this sentence convey disgust and separation–and the separation piece is key. Subtle messages of separation and differentiation between young and old serve to perpetuate the “us” and “them” grouping, something that enhances broad generalizations of older adults and therefore prevents people from seeing older adults as unique individuals.

"I think they thought we were two cute, slightly clueless old people."

Older adults are often portrayed as completely clueless, while at the same time "sweet,” "cute" or "traditional.” This might seem harmless, but this portrayal only serves to reinforce the image of older adults as “doddering but dear," a prevalent and established stereotype of older adults in the United States as warm but incompetent. This belief can invite certain behaviors in which older adults are treated as if they are incompetent, which has been shown to negatively influence cognitive tasks and shape harmful beliefs about self. 

"Feed the birds, Judith, feed the birds." "Watch your step Harvey, watch your step. See if they'll take a picture for us"

Notice the simplicity and direct, repetitive nature of these two commands. It's as if they are speaking to each other as children…this manner of simplified, direct, repetitive communication is a type of communication often referred to as "elderspeak" in which older adults are treated as incompetent and childlike. This, of course, is a form of discrimination even if it seems harmless. 

"You feel like you're a kid again, that's what I want to feel when I'm 80"

It’s quite sad to think that "feeling like a kid again" is what we have to look forward to in old age. From my encounters with older adults, there is so much more to aging than feeling childlike in old age. There is room for wisdom, generativity (passing down one’s self and tradition), mindfulness, spirituality, intellectual discoveries, deep connection with others, and much more. How sad to think that these aspects of aging are not portrayed, and that “feeling like a kid” again is the best possible outcome. Worse yet, if these individuals believe that they should feel like a kid again, what room is there for feeling anything else in old age? 

"I feel like this is what it feels like to grow old with somebody" "If JJ and I had been married for 50 years, I think the date would have gone exactly how it did"

Not only do Andi and JJ perpetuate a good majority of ageist stereotypes, but they also believe that how they enacted this age group is accurate. This really emphasizes the point that these beliefs are so engrained in us, that we cannot see a different outcome…and the implications for our own personal aging (through self-fulfilling prophecy) are quite saddening. I know that I hope for more than wandering, disability, confusion, simplicity, and being "doddering but dear" in my old age.

The cherry on the sundae: A Werthers

The date ends with Andi and JJ sitting on a park bench (they got there via scooter) and JJ pulling a surprise from his pocket ("Oh, it's a Werthers!"), and I'm left wondering how I'm the only person who finds this type of media so harmful. The fact that viewers likely had no reaction to these statements highlights rather than diminishes the key importance of the problem. When ageism passes outside the realm of our awareness, these messages become even more powerful. I look forward to a day when Ageism does not go unnoticed in the media, and when conscious and unconscious messages about aging offer a diverse and non-stereotyped perspective on a unique group of individuals, older adults. 

Kristin Hultgren is a doctoral student in Counseling Psychology at the University of Denver, with a specialty in geropsychology and aging studies.

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