More than ever, the media is significantly affecting how society perceives the world. Projected through social media, TV, movies, magazines, and commercials, the ideas generated by individuals can now be distributed to wide audiences and to influence perceptions. The inaccurate and negative portrayal of ageing and older people is a cause of great concern among modern individuals who are forward-looking. However, most of society still perceives the elderly with a stereotypical and degrading mindset. The manner in which the media portrays the elderly in a negative manner tends to devalue and demean them, and this underpins the widespread ageist perspective. This paper examines media representations of the ageing and older people and it determines that their effective and positive representation is important because it impacts on the behaviors, expectations, and attitudes of both the old and young in society.
Ageist Imagery and Societal Stereotyping
Negative images of ageing and older people in the media are more common than positive portrayals. When older adults are shown in the media, their images usually suggest that they are homogenous and that they have outdated physical appearance attributes. While pictures of young people expose their vibrant personalities, those of older people portray them as looking alike, wearing similar clothing, and being in similar situations. However, research indicates that the older people become, the more heterogeneous they turn out to be (Applewhite, 2019). This is because at this stage in life, an individual has endured numerous and diverse experiences that shape their individual perspectives. Most images also depict them as having wrinkled skin and grey hair, and this use of stereotypical imagery is usually a hidden attempt to demonstrate that the intended audience of the media is older adults. However, age alone should not be used to categorize people because everyone develops distinctive tastes, habits, and characteristics as they grow older.
Even though many older people are active in their communities, most images in the media intend to show that they are isolated from the rest of the world. They are portrayed as being alone, or with partners, helpers or medical professionals. Further, many images show them as disconnected individuals who are in wheelchairs and under the care of helpers such as caregivers or partners, while those of younger people show them standing, socializing with peers, and engaging in physical activities. Very few modern events, apart from family gatherings, consist of individuals of all ages (Applewhite, 2019). However, this was not the case in ancient society where age was not a determinant for a position in the community. Rather, age only became an important denominator in modern times because it was used as a legal indicator of an individual’s ability to access educational and economic opportunities (Applewhite, 2019). This has in turn fostered segregation and discrimination and that is one of the reasons why people nowadays spend more time with others from their own age group rather than mingling.
Ageing and older people are often shown to have childlike behavior, thus giving backward thinkers an opportunity to treat them poorly. There are countless images of older people throwing tantrums or making faces and this tends to portray them as unruly children. With this perception in mind, people will use condescending and demeaning language as well as baby talk when they speak to older people, perhaps with the aim of humiliating them. Research indicates that when an adult feels threatened by an individual that they have a strong attachment to, they will regress into childlike behavior in order to protect themselves from possible hurt (Seltzer, 2016). Many people use elderspeak when they are talking to older people. This refers to the condescending language or baby talk that some people use when they address the ageing. This is demeaning language and no one likes to be spoken to in such a way (Applewhite, 2019). Ageing and older people might therefore react angrily to such demeaning language in order to cover their insecurity because more than anything else, everyone needs to feel safe in their relationships.
The hidden meaning behind pictures in the media is to show society that old age is a lonely phase of life during which an individual’s physical and mental health deteriorate to the point of needing help. Moreover, they create a mental image in viewers that ageing and older people are similar to children and that they should consequently be treated as such. When media recipients see such representations, they subconsciously adopt these depictions and will find themselves using elderspeak or talking slowly or more loudly to older people. This is because they will assume that what the media is showing is the reality; that older people should be treated like children because they behave the same.
Older people who are spoken to using elderspeak usually begin to move, think and act differently. Research indicates that even when an older person suffers from conditions such as dementia, they will still be able to detect such demeaning language and will get offended by it (Applewhite, 2019). This is because nobody, both young and old, likes to be condescended to. Therefore, ageing and older people will react to such ageist behavior with anger so that they can hide the hurt that they are feeling at being treated in a demeaning way (Seltzer, 2016). They will most likely throw tantrums or make funny faces to hide their real emotions (Picture in Assignment), so society starts to associate them with childlike behavior. It is rare to find older people in prime-time television programs, and those who are featured are portrayed as being physically and sexually dormant, financially poor, and inefficient. The older are also commonly depicted as childlike, absent-minded, out of touch with reality, comical, and even sometimes as repulsive.
Implications on Older Adults, Media Recipients and Society
Ageing and older people already realize that they face discrimination from the media. This makes them to feel unwanted, ignored, and also unhappy with the way in which they are represented. As such, they believe that media does not portray their lives in a truthful and honest manner but merely uses stereotypical ideologies in order to sell products. Ageism is therefore a form of prejudice and rejection that diminishes the value of individuals based merely on their age. Older people, just like children, will therefore react with childlike behavior or anger when they feel threatened and it becomes a defense mechanism to protect them from further hurt.
Ageism affects the health of older people across the globe. Many older people who feel ignored or invisible in society might get depressed, angry, and also face mental health challenges. They might be hesitant to visit hospital facilities more frequently in order to prevent the perception in society that older people are sickly or in need for care. Others might refuse to move to aged care facilities when they can no longer take care of themselves because of the stereotypical perception in the media about older people being feeble and needing help all the time.
The perpetuation of stereotypes thus means that aging adults who are in the media are overlooked because society places more value on the youth than on them. Advertisements and commercials are particularly demeaning, and they hide stereotypical attitudes behind what is perceived as humor at the expense of older people. This ultimately reinforces the harmful and incorrect representation of the older population in a way that society does not seem to realize. For instance, the media recipients of an advertisement will begin to associate certain products with older people even though the product is designed to serve a larger age group. They will assume that when they use a certain product this means that they are old, and yet many of them are not prepared to accept the onset of old age. Therefore, media representations of older people influence the daily interactions of the media recipients, including how they relate to one another and how they see themselves as growing old with time.
Media representations of ageing and older people create a certain fear in society. People start to believe that this is not a good phase of life and that when they reach that age, they will receive similar treatment. Ageism consequently sets the older and the younger in opposition to one another, affecting all people because in the long term, everyone is expected to grow old. Society has accepted negative media stereotypes even without realizing it and is therefore used to viewing older people with a destructive attitude. Younger individuals in society make ageing and older people to feel invisible and discriminated against and this in turn makes them afraid of their own future as older people. That is perhaps the reason why people are constantly trying to find solutions to make them appear young, for instance using cosmetic surgery, wearing makeup, and experimenting with research to find the source of youth.
Negative media images about older people also affect how society engages in social and economic activities with the ageing. For instance, it can lead to discrimination in the workplace, with older people being denied certain jobs because they are perceived to have health problems. Older people receive unequal access to employment, in job retention, and in getting access to professional training and development opportunities in the workplace. What this implies is that media portrayals of older people have led to biased perception and discrimination against older workers. Older workers are therefore perceived to have poor health and minimal productivity, and this affects their ability to remain in the job market for a long time.
People also use age groups to categorize themselves and other individuals. They begin to have an “us” versus “them” attitude that ultimately affects how they think about themselves and others. When older people are invisible in the media, this reminds society that they are worthless, but making them more visible can ensure that society sees older people as individuals with distinct identities that can add benefits to society.
Ageism is a particularly problematic phenomenon that has been perpetuated in the media and throughout society. The media portrays the ageing and older people as incompetent, physically and sexually dormant, inefficient, and financially unstable. These negative and stereotypical perceptions in turn make older people to feel ignored and invisible in society and it can lead to mental and health challenges for many of them. Ultimately, negative media representations create demeaning attitudes in media recipients and in society and continue to perpetuate the idea that old age is a phase of life that should be avoided as much as possible.
Applewhite, A. (2019). Why do we treat old people like babies? That’s ageism [Video file]. Web.
Seltzer, L. F. (2016). Anger: When adults act like children – and why. Psychology Today. Web.