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Sunday, March 25, 2012

Digging Deeper Into Ageism

The Theoretical Basis of Ageism[i]

Ageism consists of a negative bias or stereotypic attitude toward aging and the aged.  It is maintained in the form of primarily negative stereotyped and myths concerning the older adult.  Takier (1980) outlines four factors that have contributed to this negative image of aging.  Each will be discussed below.

The first factor that is postulated to contribute to ageism is fear of death in Western society.  Western civilization conceptualizes death as outside the human life cycle (Butler & Lewis, 1977). As such, death is experienced and viewed as an affront to the self. Death is not seen as a natural and inevitable part of the life course. This can be contrasted with Eastern philosophy where life and death are inextricably woven together and the “self” continues throughout. To be a person, in Western society however, means that one must be alive and in control of the events of one’s life.  Therefore, death is feared.[ii]
As death is feared, old age is feared; death and old age are viewed as synonymous in American society (Kastenbaum, 1979). Kastenbaum (1973) hypothesizes the ageism attitudes serve to insulate the young and middle-aged from the ambivalence they feel towards the elderly.  This ambivalence results from the fact that the older adult is view as representing aging and death.  Butler (1969) states: “Ageism reflects a deep seated uneasiness on the part of the young and middle-aged – a personal revulsion to and distaste for growing old, disease, disability; and a fear of powerlessness, ‘uselessness’, and death.” (p.243). This represents the most commonly argued basis for ageism.

The second factor postulated by Traxier (1980) to contribute to ageism is the emphasis on the youth culture in American society. For example the media, ranging from television to novels, place emphasis on youth, physical beauty, and sexuality.  Older adults are primarily ignored or portrayed negatively (Martel, 1968; Noththcott, 1975).[iii]  The emphasis on youth not only affects how older individuals are perceived but also how older individuals perceive themselves. Persons who are dependent on physical appearance and your for identity are likely to experience loss of self-esteem with age (Block, Davidson, & Grumbs, 1981)
The emphasis in American culture on productivity represents the third factor contributing to Ageism in American culture (Traxier, 1980)[iv].  It should be noted that productivity is narrowly defined in terms of economic potential.  Both ends of the life cycle are viewed as unproductive, children and the aged.  The middle-aged are perceived as carrying the burdens imposed by both groups (Butler, 1969). Children, however, are viewed as having future economic potential. In as way, they are seen as economic investment.  Economically, older adults are perceived as a financial liability.  This is not to say that older adults are unproductive.  However, upon retirement, the older adult is not longer viewed as economically productive in American society and thus devalued.
The fourth factor contributing to ageism in American society and the so-called helping professions is the manner in which aging is originally researched.  Poorly controlled gerontological studies[v] have reinforced the negative image of the older adult.  When aging was originally studied researchers went to long-term care institutions where the aged were easy to find.  However only 5 percent of the older population is institutionalized.  Thus the early research on the aged and aging was based on non-well, institutionalized older individuals.  There is still a need for more research to be undertaken using a healthy, community-dwelling older population.

The factors cited above represent four contributing factors to ageism. It is proposed that individual ageist attitudes can be decreased through continual exposure to and work with older adults. (Rosencranz & McNevin, 1969) However, there appears to be a large societal influence on ageist attitudes. Therefore, until these societal influences are addressed, ageism cannot be obliterated.[vi]  For example, if the fear of death and therefore aging is not somehow addressed societally, then younger individuals will continue to attempt to make the older population somehow different from themselves. The differinations of themselves from older adults, thus serves to protect them from the reality of death.

[i]  Found by Goodling “The Theoretical Basis of Ageism.”  All of it is an exact copy of that posting.
[ii]  Interestingly I recently found some research that indicates that in western society deeply religious and atheistic persons handle the problem of death the best.
[iii]   It is interesting that these references are from the 60’s and 70”s.  Do you think that the media has improved their images of elders since then?
[iv]  Obviously this data was collected in the USA. An interesting question is whether this applies to all or most of Western Culture.
[v]   This material was gathered and published several decades ago. Whether is biased or not.  Let’s assume that current gerontology is playing a the top of the game these days
[vi]  For those interested in current ageism, I suggest that you examine one of my earliest posts on this blog, that shows the results of Yongjie Yon’s recent research and myself on Ageism in British Columbia.

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