Aging is the normal process of time-related change which begins with birth and continues until death. These changes include how a person feels and functions with respect to physical or mental competences. It is important for individuals to increase their knowledge and understanding of aging so as to prevent ageist behaviours, discrimination and maltreatment of the elders in our societies today. The public’s perception of older adults is very unpleasant and can implant fear into individuals who are approaching the retirement age. This pessimistic view of being old not only makes younger people’s evolution into older age one of misery, but this despondency is mentally projected out towards the elders of our society (HubPages, 2012). This essay therefore, examines the factors that may perhaps be accountable for the perception of the elderly in societies today, theoretical perspective, effects of ageism on the elderly and suggestions that can change society’s negative perspective toward aging and to promote positive images.
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Constantly babies are being born around the world, as well as persons moving into retirement. According to Michelle Barnhart, Researcher, Oregon State University, on a day to day basis approximately 10,000 individuals in the United States turns 65 years old and this is an indication that it is time for them to retire. Most developed countries have generally accepted the chronological age of 65 years as the definition of an ‘older person’ (WHO, 2009). Apart from chronological age, an individual’s age can be determined by examining biological, psychological and socio-cultural processes (Cohen, 2002). The elderly population seems to be increasing significantly, due to the fact that more and more people are attaining the retirement age (65 years) and are living longer.
In societies today the elderly is seen as less valuable since their individualism, self-reliance, and independence would have been altered. This is due to the fact that with the aging process there is a possibility that one may experience some form of health complications or chronic disease, as a result of the physical changes taking place in the body. Elders are frequently faced with stereotyping where individuals repeatedly perpetuate bogus information and negative images and characteristics concerning them. Some elderly are perceived in a positive light from time to time because they are actively involved in the community, loyal, sociable, and warm. Nonetheless the negative perceptions are more dominant, for instance; older people are often stereotyped as being unhealthy or always sick, decreased psychological functioning, unappealing, sexless, negative personality traits, miserable, lonesome and excluded from society. Stereotypes may be as a result of an individual’s negative personal experience, myths shared throughout the ages, and a general lack of current information. Older adults are labeled with negative statements such as; wrinkled, cranky, crotchety, inattentive, forgetful, fragile, feeble, stuck in the past, past their prime, or a burden on society.
There are a lot of factors that may be responsible for the modern day perception of the elderly. An individual’s age, gender, level of knowledge, interaction with old adults and how frequent, cultural influences, modernization and the media are all factors that may influence how the elderly is perceived by members of society. Additionally, there are a lot of misconceptions about older adults since most people are not knowledgeable about aging. These misconceptions include: most older adults cannot live independently, chronologic age determines oldness, most elderly persons have diminished intellectual capacity or are senile, all older people are content and serene, all older persons are resistant to change and older adults cannot be productive or active.
The functionalist theory looked at how the different parts of society work together in order for it to function smoothly. With respect to the elderly, functionalists believe that the elders are one of society’s fundamental groups. However, the disengagement theory states that withdrawal from society is a normal behaviour portrayed by the aging individual. This is so because the elderly experiences a reduction in both their physical and mental level of functioning, hence they expects at some point in time they will die, resulting in withdrawal from individuals and society (Cummings and Henry 1961). Additionally, the activity theory seeks to explain that activity levels and social involvement are key aspects in replacing what was lost and went on further to say it is the key to happiness (Havinghurst 1961; Neugarten 1964; Havinghurst, Neugarten, and Tobin 1968). To expound, it is said that the happiness of an elderly depends on how active and involved he or she is, the more active, the happier they will be. Lastly, the continuity theory explains that the elderly who remain active and involved during their elder years do so by making particular choices in order to preserve stability internally and externally. This is an attempt to maintain social equilibrium and stability by making future decisions on the basis of already developed social roles (Atchley 1971; Atchley 1989).
Conflict theorists’ stated that society is essentially unstable in view of the fact that it shows favour to the more powerful and wealthy individuals while marginalizing everyone else. There is always a competition for power and limited resources among social groups; hence the elderly population struggles with other groups resulting in conflicts. Conflicts are evident in Trinidad and Tobago with respect to the senior citizens pension; at age 65 all individuals qualify for the $3,000.00 pension, while on the other hand those who are entitled to a National Insurance Pensions qualifies for a smaller percentage of the senior citizens pension.
The Modernization theory developed by Sociologists Donald Cowgill and Lowell Holmes proposes that industrialization and modernization are the main reason why the elderly looses power and influence in society (Cowgill and Holmes 1972). Sociologist Donald Cowgill’s states in his theory that there is a relationship between ageing and modernization; older men and women in less technologically advanced societies tend to yield more economic and social power than those in more industrialized countries (Cowgill 1986). Prior to industrialization, it was seen where the younger generation cared for the elderly in their society due to the strong social bound they had. Nowadays, it is evident that in various households the number of family members is under five (5); extended families are replaced by nuclear families. Individualism have become a characteristic of our civilization despite the traditionally collectivist nature of some cultures because of changes associated with all modern societies. In an individualistic industrial society, caring for an elderly relative is seen as a voluntary obligation that may be ignored without fear of social censure (Openstax College, 2012). However, research shows that even though modernization and industrialization lead to socio-cultural changes, the importance of family and respecting and valuing the elderly in certain cultures may be limited but still remains a priority.
David Hackett Fischer (1977), an American historian, like modernization theorists he also believes that the status of older people has declined over time. However, he further stated that, before modernization and industrialization could take place in the United States the decline in the elderly being powerful had already began. According to the Encyclopedia of Aging (2002), Fischer further argued that between 1800’s and 1900’s the cultural transformation took place when citizens became interested in the principles of independence and egalitarianism. These behaviours were influenced mainly by the standards of the French Revolution. These new cultural values are accountable for the lower statuses of elders in the US and by extension Western societies today. For this reason, our elderly are no longer treated with the respect compared to log ago and this is where ageism is seen and ageist behaviours being demonstrated towards the older individuals in society.
Ageism generates unnecessary fear, waste, illness, and misery (Palmore, 2004); hence it has an impact on both society and culture, even though most individuals are not aware of it. Ageism and ageist attitudes is one of the factors that can contribute to elder abuse by creating a fertile environment in which the abuse can develop, leading to age discrimination, and devaluing and disempowering older people. The elderly themselves feels less valuable to society because of society’s perception of them. The youth centric culture in which we live describes us as lacking compassion for the elderly, the affinity to “shoot” our weak and wounded, us versus them mentally and the impression that one’s value is based on what one can add to society (Holman, 2010). In Western culture, more so the United States, they are obsessed with the youths of their country. On the other hand, other cultures will respect and even worship older individuals for their wisdom. Tan et al. (2004) argued that a sample of younger people in China held more positive attitudes towards all categories of older people when compared with findings from studies in the US, Singapore and Trinidad. In general, society considers the children to be the future generation and they are worth fighting for. However, they will think twice when it comes to fighting for the elderly because in their view they have already lived their lives and are no longer as valuable to society.
The role of the media in supporting ageism is that it mostly celebrates and encourages the younger individuals, which perpetuates ageist images and stereotypes. Children are more susceptible to the penalty of negative media images and introduction to stereotypical portrayals of the elderly can alter their views of the actuality of aging and the elders in our society. This would definitely affect the way the youth intermingle with the elders. Television, print media (books, newspapers, magazines, and advertisements) are all considered a major and insidious cause of influence on the public’s perceptions of older people and ageing. In the media the elderly often represents and portray the roles of older characters, which reflect ageing stereotypes. Television especially, plays a momentous role in influential public outlook on the elderly, and it is often held responsible for bringing about negative stereotypes of ageing.
Television characters can both deliberately and automatically create standards of social comparison and role models for viewers (Kessler et al. 2004). Aging is often associated with balding, graying or thinning hair, and wrinkling of the skin. The media in trying to sell their product or service often reflect ageism by depicting the physical changes and unattractiveness of the elderly resulting in older people being stereotyped as ugly. Physical appearance, mainly facial features do play an important role when it comes to defining a person as old. However, the youths tend to find it hard in accepting that these changes must take place with the aging process. The television is viewed by almost everyone in society and it is a fact that older people are often underrepresented. It is concluded that the media is a relevant approach for showcasing stereotypes of how older people and how ageing is portrayed.
In Trinidad and Tobago the Government have tried implementing support systems for its elderly population such as senior citizens pension ($3,000.00 monthly), which increases with the change in Government. Additionally, public assistance and disability grants are available to not only the elderly but all those in need. The elderly who have not yet reached the age of 65 to qualify for the pension and is at a disadvantage due to illness or complications caused by the aging process can benefit from these grants. Also, bus passes are available to all senior citizens (age 65 and above) where the elderly can travel for free on board any Public Transportation Service Corporation (PTSC) Buses throughout Trinidad and Tobago. Added to this, they are entitled to travel for free on the Port Authority Inter Island Ferry Service. From my observation, most of the elderly population do welcome the initiative and take advantage of these services offered to them. However, a few of them refuse to accept the bus pass and free boat ride as they see it as a form stereotyping. I do understand their point of view as to why they prefer to have their age kept a secret; this is due to the society in which we live where the elderly often faces ageism and ageist behaviours from the younger citizens. In light this; it is my opinion that not enough is being done to ensure that the senior citizen population has a bright and enjoyable future.
The perceptions the public hold of older people can impact on the elderly in employment, education, health services, and the overall treatment of older adults. These perceptions are determined and influenced by many different factors such as: modernization and industrialization of society; age; gender; lack of knowledge and misconceptions, as well as the media. It is seen that perceptions of the elderly can impact their lives positively but mostly negatively. On the positive side, the access to social and employment opportunities, as well as access to health services is evident. On the other hand, negatively it resulted in stereotypical behaviours and ageism, which further lead to social exclusion and isolation of the elderly, as well as elder abuse. It is also evident that ageism can definitely lead to marginalization and degradation of the elderly in our societies today.
The World Health Organization states that with the growth of the elderly population there is an increase in many new social, political, and economic challenges (WHO 2002). I believe that the government must intervene and develop strategies and implement policies or laws to ensure that older people are treated fairly and with respect. For example, there is a family obligation towards the care of older people enshrined in law in China with punishments for adult children who fail to support a dependent parent, Tan et al. (2004). This will guarantee that the elders can and do live a better quality of life because at the end of the day they would have contributed to the society in which we now live.
I recommend that groups or campaigns be set up so as to ensure the elders in our societies are valued and respected by providing, caring and protecting them from ageism and elder abuse. This will further promote how the elderly have contributed to society and developed new initiatives in which they can add more valuable contributions to society. In these groups ageing educational programmes should be implemented and geared towards all age groups of society, more so to those groups that portray negative attitudes towards older people, for example; the youths and men. These programmes should also branch over to schools in our society, both primary and secondary so as to target children and adolescents with respect to ageism seeing that it is not innate but is developed over time.
Additionally, education programmes could also be implemented in the community; for example health centers, community centers, and youth groups to specifically target those areas where the general public’s attitudes towards ageing and older people are most negative including attitudes towards older people’s health, body image, sexuality, mental ability, personality and social involvement. The first step is education to address their lack of knowledge and then to bring about awareness of the elders contribution to society so as to ensure they are well respected and accepted by members of society. These community educational programmes should consist of some older people so as to ensure elders feels valued and acknowledged rather than isolated or socially excluded. Involvement in these community activities will also allow for enhancement of their quality of life. Contact with these elderly people would definitely address all the misconceptions and stereotypes and establish successful to improve the perceptions of older people and ageing.
Atchley, R.C. (1971). “Retirement and Leisure Participation: Continuity or Crisis?”The Gerontologist11:13–17.
Atchley, R.C. (1989). “A Continuity Theory of Normal Aging.”The Gerontologist29:183–190.
Cohen, H.L. (2002). Developing media literacy skills to challenge television’s portrayal of older women. Educational Gerontology, 28, 599-620.
Cowgill, D.O. and L.D. Holmes, eds. (1972).Aging and Modernization. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
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Street, Debra; Parham, Lori. “Status of Older People: Modernization.”Encyclopedia of Aging. 2002. Retrieved March 30, 2014 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3402200387.html
Tan, P.P., Zhang, N.H. & Fan, L. (2004) Students’ attitudes toward the elderly in the People’s Republic of China. Educational Gerontology, 30(4), 305-314.
World Health Organisation (WHO) (2009) Definition of an older or elderly person. Retrieved from: http://www.who.int/healthinfo/survey/ageingdefnolder/en/index.html
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