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Baby Boomers Approach a Senior Moment: Ageism

As this population begins to turn 60, the elderly and their concerns will likely move higher on the national agenda.

September 26, 2004|David Crary | Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK — Greeting-card and novelty companies call them "Over the Hill" products: the 50th Birthday Coffin Gift Boxes featuring prune juice and anti-aging soap; the "Old Coot" and "Old Biddy" bobble-head dolls; the birthday cards mocking the mobility, intellect and sex drive of the no-longer-young.

Many Americans chuckle at such humor. Others see it as offensive, as one more sign of pervasive ageism in America.

It's a bias some also see in substandard conditions at nursing homes, in pension-plan cutbacks by employers, in the relative invisibility of the elderly on television shows and in advertisements.

"Daily we are witness to, or even unwitting participants in, cruel imagery, jokes, language, and attitudes directed at older people," says Dr. Robert N. Butler, president of the International Longevity Center-USA and the person who coined the term "ageism" 35 years ago.

That ageism exists, in a society captivated by youth culture and taut-skinned good looks, is scarcely debatable. But as the oldest of the 77 million baby boomers approach their 60s, the elderly and their concerns will inevitably move higher on the national agenda.

Already, there is lively debate as to whether ageism will ease or grow worse in the coming decades of boomer senior citizenship. Erdman Palmore, a professor emeritus at Duke University who has written or edited more than a dozen books on aging, counts himself -- cautiously -- among the optimists.

"One can say unequivocally that older people are getting smarter, richer and healthier as time goes on," Palmore said. "I've dedicated most of my life to combating ageism, and it's tempting for me to see it everywhere.... But I have faith that as science progresses, and reasonable people get educated about it, we will come to recognize ageism as the evil it is."

Palmore, 74, lives what he preaches -- challenging the stereotypes of aging by skydiving, whitewater rafting, bicycling his age in miles each birthday.

"What makes me mad is how aging, in our language and culture, is equated with deterioration and impairment," Palmore said. "I don't know how we're going to root that out, except by making people more aware of it."

To the extent that ageism persists, there will soon be many more targets. The number of Americans 65 and older is projected to double over the next three decades from 35.9 million to nearly 70 million, constituting 20% of the population in 2030 as opposed to less than 13% now.

The 85-and-over population is the fastest-growing segment -- projected to grow from 4 million in 2000 to 19 million in 2050. Americans now turning 65 will live, on average, 18 more years.

Some researchers believe that ageism, in the form of negative stereotypes, directly affects longevity.

In a study published by the American Psychological Assn., Yale School of Public Health professor Becca Levy and her colleagues concluded that older people with positive perceptions of aging lived an average of 7.5 years longer than those with negative perceptions.

Levy said many Americans started developing stereotypes about the elderly during childhood, reinforced them throughout adulthood, and entered old age with attitudes toward their own age group as unfavorable as younger people's attitudes.

"It's possible to overcome the stereotypes, but they often operate without people's awareness," Levy said. "Look at all the talk about plastic surgery, Botox. The message is, 'Don't get old.' "

For thousands of American workers, it's the same message they claim to hear on the job. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has received more than 19,000 age-discrimination complaints in each of the last two years, and has helped win tens of millions of dollars in settlements.

But attorneys say age discrimination often is hard to prove. About one in seven of EEOC age cases were settled to the complainant's benefit.

New Yorker Bill DeLong, 84, was fired three years ago from his longtime job as a waiter at a Shea Stadium restaurant. He continues to seek charitable volunteer assignments and works as a waiter occasionally at special events. "I didn't give up," he said. "A lot of my contemporaries give up too soon."

Catherine Roberts, 78, stays active with New York City's Joint Public Affairs Committee for Older Adults, a coalition that encourages seniors to advocate on their own behalf on legislative and community issues.

"I don't have time to get old," said Roberts, who came to New York from Maine in 1955. "I'm too busy."

Despite her upbeat outlook, she resents the way some of her peers are treated. "We're a culture that worships youth," she said. "Seniors are getting pushed aside. I see people in my building whose families ignore them -- they fall through the cracks."

For many older people, ageism surfaces in the context of healthcare. A report by the Alliance for Aging Research, presented to a Senate committee last year, said the elderly were less likely to receive preventive care and often lacked access to doctors trained in their needs.

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