I sometimes stray off in class. Like some students, the classroom becomes my own little world of fantasy. Except, unlike my students, I am teaching the class.
Last week I was discussing how peer-ist our society is. We tend to only mix with people our own age. As I was lecturing I tried to recall the last time I held a baby in my arms, and in front of 110 students I realized that it must have been more than two years ago. I joked that I see a lot more older people because that is my job. But unless you live in an extended family, and most students in the United States do not, then it is unlikely for them to interact with children or older adults on a consistent basis. By not engaging with older adults my students are likely to develop negative ageist stereotypes
In 1992, Joann Montepare and her colleagues looked at how college students spoke with their grandparents and parents on the phone. They found that with their grandparents, college students had a higher pitch and used a more babyish, feminine voice, while at the same time being more deferential and congenial. Different from the type of speech exchanged with their parents. And this differential treatment starts much earlier than college.
Children tend to evolve a negative view of older adults early on. Negative views of older adults seem to come naturally to young minds. For example, in 1990, Charles Perdue and Michael Gurtman asked children to recall traits after they were introduced to the person they are recalling the traits for. They could recall more negative traits when their reference was an “old” person and more positive traits about a “young” person. Children already have preferential memories. They remember and recall negative traits because they are already associated with older adults. The authors argue that these age biases are automatic, unintentional, and unconscious. It seems that such discrimination is pervasive and results in negative behavior towards older adults.
In 1986, while observing behavior of children as they interacted with elderly people, Leora Isaacs and David Bearison found that children were quite discriminating. When faced with either of two study helpers—one was much older, but both dressed similar and professionally—children sat farther away when with the older helper, made less eye contact, spoke less, and initiated less conversation and asked for less help. Children have already learned to keep older adults at a distance.
Could closer interaction remove these stereotypes?
One way to deal with these negative stereotypes is to develop a closer association with older adults. But the results were initially surprising. In 1987, University of Maryland professor Carol Seefldt found that 4- and 5-year-old children who had visited infirm elders in a nursing home once a week for a full year held more negative attitudes towards older adults compared to a similar group without this contact. However, the day care and nursing home staff reported positive and long-lasting benefits to both the children and elders.
I remember my children coming home from Montessori School proud to tell me that they visited a nursing home with “old people.” Knowing that this was my interest they knew I was interested in what they learned and I was anticipating a positive response. Smelly and horrible was their response. But then in hindsight it should not have surprised me. If my experience of older adults is exclusively based on a nursing home, I similarly would have a very negative view of aging.
Which explains why the evidence that intergenerational contact influencing children's attitudes is mixed. In 2002, Molly Middlecamp and Dana Gross enrolled 3- to 5-year-old children in either an intergenerational daycare program or regular daycare program. They found that the two groups were very similar in their attitudes to older adults. In general, children rated older adults less positively than they did younger adults, and these children believed that older adults could participate in fewer activities than children could. The take home lesson is that not all prejudices can be overwhelmed by knowledge, only through appropriate knowledge.
Without appropriate engagement, we get a voluminous amount of information about older adults exclusively from the media, especially as reflected in adolescent literature. David Peterson and Elizabeth Karnes reported that older persons in fiction literature were underdeveloped and peripheral to the major action in the books reviewed. And there are nuances in perception that are determined by the socioeconomic context. Tom Hickey and his colleagues as early as 1968 found that among the third grade, students from higher socioeconomic groups looked more favorably on older persons (although, perceiving loneliness problems), and children from poorer homes did not anticipate loneliness but expected senility and eccentric behavior. A social component of the type of stereotypes is evident.
If my information is coming from a negative source, then my negative views are unlikely to be assuaged. My social class or culture might modify these stereotypes. By designing an appropriate intervention, where young people interact in a meaningful way with older people, only then can negative views of aging be replaced with more realistic perceptions. This was the intention and success of a 2002 program initiated by Eileen Schwalbach and Sharon Kiernan. The program was designed for fourth graders to visit an elder "special friend" at a nursing home every week for five months. They were primed before their visit by describing some of the issues that might come up during their visit. During the course of the study, the fourth graders’ attitudes toward their "special friends" were consistently positive and their empathy increased.
Milledge Murphey, Jane Myers, and Phyllis Drennan wrote a review of such effective programs. They especially focus on the seminal program begun in 1968 by Esstoya Whitley. As part of their school curriculum, 6- to 8-year-old students "adopted" a grandparent from among residents of a nearby nursing home. As anticipated, the children’s attitudes became more positive towards their adoptee. But what was unexpected was that the children continued visiting their adopted grandparents for a few years at least three times per week. The children gained a positive attitude toward the elderly and a more realistic view of aging and developed a true relationship with their adoptees.
But perhaps the most memorable study of interaction was a recent 2017 British factual entertainment program—euphemism for reality TV in the United States—by Channel 4. Although such intergenerational programs have been conducted in the United States for more than half a century, this was the first time it was televised from the start. The nursing group participants came from St Monica Trust retirement community in Bristol where once a week for six weeks a group of 4-year-old kindergartners descended upon the sedentary tranquility of the nursing home and infused it with ambulant energy. The weekly television series updates the viewers with funny and eccentric interactions. But at the end, what the show clearly shows is how the older residents improve their cognition, physical ability, and mental health across the six-week interaction with the children. In turn, the children develop greater empathy for their older playmates.
The question remains: How did society become so age segregated? And why?
Looking across a sea of young faces in class, I realize that we start at school and the best place to disaggregate is schools. Ivan Illich, the infamous activist from the 1960s, already covered this topic. In the 1971 book Deschooling Society, Illich discusses ways of removing the barriers to education and to incorporate education into the general social network through social hubs like libraries. With the incredible amount of money that educational institutions make—especially publicly funded ones—there is no incentive to change the status quo. Until then, we have to suffer the consequences of age apartheid that we continue promoting, while feeling enriched and uplifted when we see those barriers removed, albeit only on television for now.
© USA Copyrighted 2017 Mario D. Garrett
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