Stereotypes About the Elderly

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There are many negative stereotypes about seniors. These stereotypes are often reinforced by media, literature, and through a shared cultural definition of what it means to be “old.” Words that come to mind when thinking about aging may include:

  • Senile
  • Sickly
  • Unattractive
  • Greedy
  • Cranky
  • Child-Like

How stereotypes continue

Stereotypes about the elderly are generally learned and internalized when we are young. They are observed throughout society and many people learn these biases directly from their parents. Young people’s viewpoints of the elderly are also formed based on their interactions with their grandparents and other seniors in their family and community. These relationships may affect their long-term perceptions of aging and overall relationships with seniors.        

The film, television, beauty, fashion and music industries often portray negative senior stereotypes, especially when it comes to depicting physical characteristics. The elderly are often seen in magazines and commercials with wrinkles, stooped postures, ashen skin tones, and grey or balding hair. These negative portrayals accompanied with elderly stereotypes often lead the young to have cosmetic procedures earlier in life as a reaction to their fear of aging. Elderly stereotypes are continually reinforced when senior actors are cast as invalids, grandparents or grouchy members of the community. The good news is that some progress has been noted in the movie industry as mature actors are being cast in more dynamic roles.

The “new” senior

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A fear of aging has contributed to the many negative stereotypes about the elderly. But, thanks to advances in science and medicine, a growing population of active seniors, and new definitions of aging, stereotypes are being redefined. An interesting article, published by The Journal of Gerontology (Levy, B. R. (2003). Mind Matters: Cognitive and Physical Effects of Aging Self-Stereotypes. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, 58(4). doi:10.1093/geronb/58.4.p203), examined how the effect of aging stereotypes become self-fulfilling prophesies. There may be a strong negative influence on cognitive and physical health when negative aging stereotypes become internalized. A future area of study should be how positive views of aging may correlate with improvements in physical and cognitive health as one ages. Hopefully, elderly stereotypes will become more positive due to advances in medicine, a change toward more positive views of aging, and longer quality lives.