Labeled: “The Elderly” Now Includes Anyone 50+?

A 2020 Oregon State University study found that the negative stereotypes people internalized about aging had a major influence on how they visualized their older selves. “People need to realize that some of the negative health consequences in later life might not be biologically driven. The mind and body are all interwoven.” Given the negative messages about aging that are constantly bombarding us, it is certainly challenging to avoid internalizing such views.  As some researchers have suggested, younger adults tend to be thought of as members of the “in-group” in our culture. Once individuals are no longer perceived as young, they are more likely thought of as members of the “out-group” with less value.

A Label Suggesting Decline and Vulnerability

No one wants to be culled from the herd as they age, but most everyone—and especially women—will experience it at some point. Once culled, we start getting branded with all kind of group labels. Probably the one that can be most damaging is when medical professionals, the media, and others refer to members of an age group as “the elderly.” The term, “elderly” is typically associated with decline. We may think of “the elderly” as those who are frail, feeble, and failing. If we internalize this and other demeaning labels that society tries to attached to us, then we do so at the risk of our own health. When are we considered a member of “the elderly” group? It depends. Based on clinical guidelines, adults in the U.S. have long been considered “elderly” when they reached sixty-five-years-old. Technically, that could mean that at 64 years + 11 months, you are not elderly, but one month later, you are suddenly in decline. When discussing age bias, a Washington Post reporter noted that some stores were offering special hours for those they deemed “vulnerable” during COVID-19 — vulnerable shoppers who were sixty and older. She also mentioned that major media had “reported experts’ warnings that the elderly, starting at age 60, are extra vulnerable.” In 2021, a writer for Get News reported on a new service for aging and mentioned the service provided support for elderly care and senior lifestyles. Then the writer stated that this new service was “primarily for those over fifty.” Targeting adults over fifty, advertisers have promoted a wide range of products related to aging.  Some of the products include pills to help our memory, adult diapers, formulas to help with our fading vision, and special supplements for our aging hearts. Other marketing efforts include special discounts for “honored seniors” and “the elderly”. Interestingly, you don’t have to be all that old to receive a senior discount on a variety of products that are reserved for those considered more vulnerable in our society. AARP offers their membership to anyone fifty or older. The Banana Republic offers senior discounts at fifty as well. Denny’s Restaurants offer senior discounts for those 55 and older.

Awareness and Effort Rather Than Internalizing Ageism

Jo Ann Jenkins, author of Disrupt Aging argued that when we assume that aging and decline are synonymous, we are less likely to make healthy choices for ourselves. Over time, neglecting our health and well-being has consequences. Clearly, it takes constant awareness and effort to avoid internalizing ageist messages as we move into our fifties and beyond. If we are not vigilant, we could implicitly accept that aging is a downhill spiral and we’ve all been sucked into that spiral. Once we accept such a message, we’ve set ourselves on a course of decline.  

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Joe Wasylyk

    The COVID-19 pandemic and all it’s current variants are taking older people over 50 to a crossroads where they are either growing through lifelong learning OR declining to eventually become elderly before their time. Question- Is this decision made individually or are seniors influenced by significant others to keep going and participate in the upcoming productive longevity?

    1. admin

      Good questions, Joe. Thanks for your thoughts on this post.

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