Stereotyping is the practice of drawing conclusions about a person’s personality, disposition, or other traits purely from his or her physical appearance or background. It is largely condemned in modern society. Gone are the days when television shows, popular music, or other purveyors of culture could engage in stereotyping without backlash. Most people today strive to avoid this type of behavior.
Yet, for at least one segment of the population, stereotyping persists. Stereotyping of elderly people remains an apparently acceptable practice, especially in certain types of television shows. As a result, some elderly people who watch these shows may actually find themselves believing the stereotypes about themselves. This can lead to seniors suffering a lesser quality of life and can even shorten life spans.
Watching Television Can Contribute to Negative Stereotyping
Researchers Donlon, Ashman, and Levy note that in a great number of television shows, stereotypes about elderly people persist. Whether they are being painted as cantankerous and stubborn or poked fun at because of their maladies or infirmities, elderly people seem to be fair game in situation comedies.
The stereotypes are not limited to situation comedies either. A number of television shows seem to rely on the premise that stereotyping of elderly people is acceptable and legitimate. This is especially true of daytime shows, when a high proportion of viewers are likely to be elderly, retired people.
As a result, people who watch a great deal of television may find themselves believing the stereotypes presented. This is true even when an audience is seeing a stereotype about themselves. Elderly people who watch a significant amount of television may find themselves believing the negative portrayals of aging.
Negative Elderly Stereotyping Begins to Affect an Elderly Person’s Self-Perception Years before He or She Is Elderly
Many people, during the formative years of their lives, will resist stereotypes about themselves because they do not reflect their own experiences. As a result, they have a defense mechanism which helps them to deny the stereotypes as false.
On the other hand, most people are presented with elderly stereotyping when they are still young and the stereotypes do not apply to them. Because of this, they may not have a defense mechanism against the stereotypes. They may end up internalizing them without even realizing it.
Levy’s research shows that children ingest negative stereotypes about aged people. She cites studies demonstrating that negative stereotyping of the elderly makes children view the aging process as something undesirable that they do not want to undergo. When they do undergo it, they tend to self-stereotype themselves negatively.
Negative Elderly Stereotyping Can Impact an Elderly Person’s Longevity
Many psychologists agree that a person’s view of his or her circumstances can impact his or her quality of life. A person’s mindset affects his or her mood and overall enjoyment. Medical research shows that a negative outlook can damage the body. It causes a stress response which can lead to earlier occurrences of strokes and heart attacks. In short, a negative outlook on life can actually lead to a shorter lifespan.
It’s not just an elderly person’s lifespan that changes due to his or her view about life. Numerous studies have shown a definite link between someone’s mindset and the onset of physical maladies. People who suffer from depression will frequently exhibit physical symptoms, including fatigue and listlessness. As an elderly person begins to accept negative stereotypes about aging people, several things can happen. He or she may actually begin to exhibit physical symptoms that mirror negative beliefs about elderly health and well-being.
Levy’s study on negative age stereotyping shows that elderly persons’ negative beliefs about the aged have serious impact. These beliefs directly affect performance on memory tests and other objective measures of well-being. This includes the ability to walk, cardiovascular health, and the will to live.
Watch Television with Caution
With this in mind, it would be wise for viewers of television to identify negative elderly stereotypes and reject them. Younger people watching television with an elderly loved one may want to point out any stereotypes and refute them. By doing this, caregivers and family members can combat the internalization of stereotypes by the elderly person. This, in turn, helps to preserve an elderly loved one’s quality of life.
Donlon, M.M., Ashman, O., and Levy, B.R. (2005). Re-Vision of Older Television Characters: A Stereotype-Awareness Intervention. Journal of Social Issues, 61(2): 307-319. Available at https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Becca_Levy/publication/227658932_Re-Vision_of_Older_Television_Characters_A_Stereotype-Awareness_Intervention/links/0912f511fa79a5f8db000000.pdf. Retrieved
Levy, B.R. (2003). Mind matters: Cognitive and physical effects of aging self-stereotypes. Journals of Gerontology, Series B, 58(4): 203-211. Available at http://psychsocgerontology.oxfordjournals.org/content/58/4/P203.full. Retrieved
Whitbourne, S.K. & Sneed, J.R. (2002). “The paradox of well-being: Identity processes, and stereotype threat: Ageism and its potential relationships to the self in later life.” Ageisim: Stereotyping and Prejudice against Older Persons. Nelson, T. D., ed.