Are Boomers Guilty of Age Discrimination?

A researcher finds that even caregivers perceive those who are aging in a negative light

Despite their claims to be reinventing the way Americans grow older, baby boomers appear to be no more enlightened than any other generation in how they view the elderly. People in their 40s and 50s hold the same strongly negative stereotypes of older people, including their parents, an Oregon State University researcher claims.

An estimated 10,000 boomers are turning 65 every day. contributing to an expected doubling of the nation’s senior population, from 40 million today to well over 80 million by 2050. But if the trends observed by Michelle Barnhart of Oregon State hold up, future elders may not like the way they’re treated by others any more than today’s seniors do.

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“Our society devalues old age in many ways,” Barnhart, an assistant professor of marketing, and her co-author, Lisa Peñaloza of the Bordeaux Management School in France, concluded in their study, “Who Are You Calling Old?” “Almost every stereotype we associate with being elderly is something negative, from being ‘crotchety’ and unwilling to change to being forgetful.”

The researchers observed and interviewed a group of people in their 80s, their adult children (mostly in their 50s or early 60s) and some paid care providers to analyze the younger generation’s perception of elders and the seniors’ response to it.

Both groups acknowledged a difference between chronological age and “getting old.” Only when a person began displaying the characteristics society associates with being old did his or her status change. Seniors who demonstrated positively perceived traits, such as alertness and independence, could “age without getting old” in other people’s eyes, the researchers found. But those who appeared dependent, rigid or disengaged were perceived as old even if their chronological age said otherwise.

What It Means for Caregivers

Time and again, subjects in the study who did not self-identify as “old” resisted help even when they were in need, leading to frustration among their adult children. “I don’t understand why this is making you mad. I’m helping you,” one daughter told her mother. But such complaints display a lack of empathy, Barnhart believes.

As we get older, we sense that surrendering independence, even in minor ways, is what will finally, irrevocably make us seem “old” to our families and the world at large, the researchers found. And we all know from experience that this perception will lead to a lack of respect because we treated others in just that way.

For family caregivers and their parents, these issues come to the fore in encounters with outsiders, like doctors. “The doctor visit is a critical service interaction about life, death and quality of life decisions,” Barnhart says. “It’s hard for caregivers not to jump in. I can’t tell you how many times I heard people talk about visits to the doctor where the doctor only talks to the daughter and not the patient.”

But when family caregivers dominate the sessions, they devalue their mother or father’s voice. “You do it because you’re trying to help, but you’re also treating her as if she’s disengaged from her own interactions with the outside world,” Barnhart says.

Doctors are not immune to age bias, either. One 89-year-old told the researchers that her cardiologist only speaks to her two daughters during office visits, as if she’s invisible. “If younger people bring you in, they think it’s because you’re not, I guess, lucid enough to understand what they’re saying,” the woman said of doctors. “I wanted to grab him by the collar and say, ‘Look, talk to me! I’m the patient!'”

Barnhart advises family caregivers to find a compromise between taking over such visits and staying out of the room altogether. “When you let the doctor talk directly to your mom, but then pipe in every now and again, as opposed to talking directly to the doctor, it makes a huge difference,” Barnhart says.

The Challenge for Elders

A mother may resent her middle-aged daughter treating her like a child at a doctor’s appointment, but Barnhart found that reacting to the slight in an angry, defensive way only reinforces the adult child’s negative perception of her as being “crotchety.”

As we get older, “all of us are going to need assistance at some point,” Barnhart says. “The challenge is to accept that help in ways that allow us to express those characteristics we associate with not being old.” At some point, our opportunities to respond to physical decline in a “younger” fashion fade, she says, “but you can hold onto it longer than we think we can right now.”

A positive view of aging appears to be a key to aging well. Another recent study, performed by Yale School of Public Health researchers, found that seniors who view older people in positive ways were 44 percent much more likely to recover from disabling conditions than others. The Yale researchers suggested that such positive attitudes about aging could diminish stress and lessen negative cardiovascular responses to the physical challenges of recovery. Also, those who believe older people can be strong may be more likely to embrace rehabilitation.

Is There Hope for Boomers?

“There are biological changes as we get older but just because people change doesn’t mean they necessarily become disengaged, confused or rigid,” Barnhart says. “We need to realize that these negative characteristics we still assume are a natural part of aging don’t happen naturally. We put these characterizations on older people.”

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Barnhart sees the challenge of overcoming ingrained ageism as similar in some ways to the civil rights movement. “At the time, there was a naturalized stereotyping of a group of people, so strongly believed by a majority that no one questioned it,” she says. “With the civil rights movement came a revelation: These people aren’t the way we have cast them. For that generation, it was a revelation, but the generation after them said, ‘Of course they’re not like that.’

“I’d like to see that type of consciousness raising about older people,” she says. “This is in the boomers’ control. If they can do this in the next 20 years, before people start treating them as old people, maybe the generation behind them will not treat them exactly the same way.”

Will it happen?

“I tend to be positive,” says Barnhart, “because I want to age well.”

Gary Drevitch
By Gary Drevitch
Gary Drevitch was senior Web editor for Next Avenue's Caregiving and Health & Well-Being channels.

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