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How Photos Showing Older Adult Hands Reveal Cultural Bias

Photos of old hands…are they ageist? Not necessarily, but it’s what the hands are doing that matters.

By Jeanette Leardi

In our highly visual world, if you want to write an online article about anything and post it on social media, it's usually a plus to accompany your words with a photo that will grab viewers' attention and inspire them to click and read on.

older adults hugging, older adult hands
Credit: Adobe

And if you're writing about aging issues, it's best to choose a photo that depicts someone who is an older adult. Unfortunately, a typical shortcut has been to use what has become an iconic image: the close-up of an older person's hands.

Here's a challenge for you: Search Google Images using the phrase "old hands." What do you see? Lots and lots of wrinkled fingers and palms. To be fair, that's expected. After all, as we get older, we lose collagen in our tissues and therefore some tautness to our skin. The issue isn't the quality of those hands but rather what they are doing.

To be clear, no matter what type of hands you search for in photos, be they of babies, children, teens or adults, the overwhelming number of examples are simply of hands. To the media's credit, many of those hands are shown holding other hands as a representation of relationship.

Unfortunately, a typical shortcut has been to use what has become an iconic image: the close-up on an older person's hands.

But it's the minority of photos in each category showing hands actually doing something that most reveals our cultural, stereotypical perceptions of identity.

In my own admittedly unscientific survey of "doing" (vs. "being") hands, here are the images I found:

Baby's hands: holding a teething ring, toy, bottle, an adult's finger or hand

Child's hands: holding a banana, worm, flower, or a paper-, clay- or stone-shaped heart; using crayons; putting together a puzzle; covered in finger paint

Teen's hands: holding a smartphone (overwhelming option), a honey jar and dipper, an e-cigarette; typing on a keyboard; modeling a beaded bracelet or multicolored nail polish; raising a hand in class

Man's hands: holding a fish, banana, smartphone, lit sparkler, paintbrush, football, cigarette; typing on a laptop; clinging to a cliff-side rock; playing a guitar; counting dollar bills; in handcuffs; sticking out between prison bars

Woman's hands: holding a pen, pearl necklace, cigarette, smartphone, cinnamon sticks, open book, lollypop; fingers making the shape of a heart; clasped in prayer; typing on a laptop; sewing; knitting; applying nail polish; weaving a basket; pouring pills from a bottle; tied together with a rope

Before I go any further, consider those last two categories. Notice a pattern? It's as if stock-photo house collections decidedly adhere to gender stereotypes, including ominous ones.

Back to my survey. As for the images of older adults, here's what I found:

Old man's hands: holding an empty bowl, cigarette, coins, plant seedling, handful of playing cards; resting on a cane; turning the page of a Bible; opening a lock with a key; resting on a hospital bedrail; holding open an empty wallet

Old woman's hands: holding eyeglasses, rosary beads, bottles of pills, a teacup; applying hand cream; resting on a lap, cane, bed blanket; knitting; kneading dough; opening a change purse

In the case of older adults, it's not so much what the hands are doing but rather what they are not doing: using a laptop or smartphone, playing an instrument and yes, even hammering a nail, holding onto a steering wheel, writing on a black/white board or operating a microscope.

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Moreover, given that American society is becoming a majority-minority nation of people of color, those hands are overwhelmingly underrepresented in stock photos. To find enough of them, you have to use a more specific Google search such as "African American hands" or "person of color's hands."

Hands Should Be Doing, Not Just Being

Older adults aren't isolated body parts, but human beings doing things in the course of living life. The problem with a wrinkly hands' shortcut is that it's commonly used in articles about aging. But general hand close-ups are hardly ever used in articles about people of other ages.

Other generations are always depicted in a context, be it a home, nursery, preschool, school, workplace, entertainment venue or vacation site. This discrepancy turns a wrinkly hands photo into an ageist icon that may discourage visitors from reading the article it illustrates.

Where are the photos of them waiting tables, teaching a class, fixing a car, drawing architectural plans, tending bar, working in a science lab...?

This issue is even more pronounced when actually considering older adults in context.

While there are plenty of examples of simple portraits — the closest to anti-aging "glamour shots" that we come to — it appears that the only acceptable stock-photo activities for anyone 50 and older (who is not a white male) are talking with doctors and nurses, walking in a park or sitting around a table with friends or family.

The dearth of images depicting diverse elders doing diverse things reflects the racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and classism that permeate our culture. Where are the photos of them waiting tables, teaching a class, fixing a car, drawing architectural plans, tending bar, working in a science lab, driving a delivery truck, training at a gym or doing a host of other activities not usually associated with the everyday lives of older adults?

Last January, Centre for Ageing Better in London launched an age-positive image library of free photos showing "positive and realistic" images of older people in a bid to challenge negative and stereotypical views of later life.

The images show a more realistic depiction of aging and old age -- to provide alternatives to the commonly used pictures of "wrinkly hands or walking sticks." No isolated hands in this library, thank goodness. [Next Avenue regularly uses images from sources such as Disabled and Here, celebrating disabled Black, indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) and Nappy, which features stock photos of Black and brown people of all ages.]

And although the archive is far from adequate, it's a start. Stock-photo houses need to follow the organization's lead. However, it's unlikely that they will act without sufficient motivation.

And this is where we come in.

Since the images we see help to build or confirm our perceptions, here's a challenge for us: Let's pressure the media we read, and the stock-photo houses they use, to embrace Centre for Ageing Better's efforts and improve their old-age-themed choices and portfolios by being not only more realistic, but also more diverse and intersectional, representing the many individuals who are living far past the "sell-by date" our culture assigns to older adults.

Not only is expanding their representations the right artistic — and moral — direction for the future, it will increase media readership and the demand for stock-photo images and will grow everyone's bottom lines.

I guarantee it, hands down.  

Contributor Jeanette Leardi
Jeanette Leardi 


Social gerontologist and Ageful Living blogger Jeanette Leardi is a Portland, Oregon–based community educator and public speaker who gives popular presentations and workshops on ageism, brain fitness, creativity, health literacy, and caregiver support. Her essays, articles, and book reviews have appeared in Next Avenue, The Charlotte Observer, The Oregonian, The Dallas Morning News, Stria, ChangingAging, and 3rd Act Magazine. 
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