Chicago Sun-Times - - WELL - BY JU­DITH GRA­HAM

What can be done about neg­a­tive stereo­types that por­tray older adults as out- of- touch, use­less, fee­ble, in­com­pe­tent, piti­ful and ir­rel­e­vant?

From late- night TV com­edy shows where sup­pos­edly clueless older peo­ple are the butt of jokes to ads for anti- ag­ing creams equat­ing youth with beauty and wrin­kles with de­cay, harsh and un­flat­ter­ing images shape as­sump­tions about ag­ing. Al­though peo­ple may hope for good health and hap­pi­ness, in prac­tice they tend to be­lieve that grow­ing older in­volves de­te­ri­o­ra­tion and de­cline, ac­cord­ing to re­ports from the Re­fram­ing Ag­ing Ini­tia­tive.

Dis­mal ex­pec­ta­tions can be­come self- ful­fill­ing as peo­ple start ex­pe­ri­enc­ing changes as­so­ci­ated with grow­ing older — aching knees or prob­lems with hear­ing, for in­stance. If a per­son has in­ter­nal­ized neg­a­tive stereo­types, his con­fi­dence may be eroded, stress re­sponses ac­ti­vated, mo­ti­va­tion di­min­ished (“I’m old, and it’s too late to change things”) and a sense of ef­fi­cacy (“I can do that”) im­paired.

Health of­ten suf­fers as a re­sult, ac­cord­ing to stud­ies show­ing that older adults who hold neg­a­tive stereo­types tend to walk slowly, ex­pe­ri­ence mem­ory prob­lems and re­cover less fully from a fall or frac­ture, among other ram­i­fi­ca­tions. By con­trast, se­niors whose view of ag­ing is pri­mar­ily pos­i­tive live 7.5 years longer.

Can pos­i­tive images of ag­ing be en­hanced and the ef­fects of neg­a­tive stereo­types re­duced? At a re­cent meet­ing of the Na­tional Acad­e­mies of Sciences’ Fo­rum on Ag­ing, Dis­abil­ity and In­de­pen­dence, ex­perts em­braced this goal and of­fered sev­eral sug­ges­tions for how it can be ad­vanced:

Be­come aware of im­plicit bi­ases. Im­plicit bi­ases are au­to­matic, un­ex­am­ined thoughts that re­side be­low the level of con­scious­ness. An ex­am­ple: the sight of an older per­son us­ing a cane might trig­ger as­so­ci­a­tions with “de­pen­dency” and “in­com­pe­tence”— neg­a­tive bi­ases.

Fo­rum at­tendee Dr. Char­lotte Yeh, chief med­i­cal of­fi­cer for AARP Ser­vices Inc., spoke of her ex­pe­ri­ence af­ter be­ing struck by a car and un­der­go­ing a lengthy, painful process of re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion. Limp­ing and us­ing a cane, she rou­tinely found strangers treat­ing her as if she were help­less.

“I would come home feel­ing ter­ri­ble about my­self,” she said. Dec­o­rat­ing her cane with rib­bons and flow­ers turned things around. “Peo­ple were like ‘ Oh, my God that’s so cool,’” said Yeh, who noted that the dec­o­ra­tions evoked the pos­i­tiv­ity as­so­ci­ated with cre­ativ­ity in­stead of the neg­a­tiv­ity as­so­ci­ated with dis­abil­ity.

Im­plicit bi­ases can be dif­fi­cult to dis­cover, in­so­far as they co­ex­ist with ex­plicit thoughts that seem to con­tra­dict them. For ex­am­ple, im­plic­itly, some­one may feel “be­ing old is ter­ri­ble” while ex­plic­itly that per­son may think: “We need to do more, as a so­ci­ety, to value older peo­ple.”

To iden­tify im­plicit bias, pay at­ten­tion to your au­to­matic re­sponses. If you find your­self flinch­ing at the sight of wrin­kles when you look in the bath­room mir­ror, for in­stance, ac­knowl­edge this re­ac­tion and then ask your­self, “Why is this up­set­ting?”

Use strate­gies to chal­lenge bi­ases. Pa­tri­cia Devine, a pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin- Madi­son who stud­ies ways to re­duce racial prej­u­dice, calls this “tun­ing in” to habits of mind that usu­ally go un­ex­am­ined.

Re­solv­ing to change these habits isn’t enough, she said, at the NAS fo­rum’s gath­er­ing in New York City: “You need strate­gies.” Her re­search shows that five strate­gies are ef­fec­tive:

† Re­place stereo­types. This en­tails be­com­ing aware of and then al­ter­ing re­sponses in­formed by stereo­types. In­stead of as­sum­ing a se­nior with a cane needs your help, for in­stance, youmight ask, “Would you like as­sis­tance?” — a ques­tion that re­spects an in­di­vid­ual’s au­ton­omy.

† Em­brace new images. This in­volves think­ing about peo­ple who don’t fit the stereo­type you’ve ac­knowl­edged. This could be a group of peo­ple ( older ath­letes), a fa­mous per­son ( TV pro­ducer Norman Lear, now 95, who just sold a show on ag­ing to NBC) or some­one you know ( a cher­ished older friend).

† In­di­vid­u­al­ize it. The more we know about peo­ple, the less we’re likely to think of them as a group char­ac­ter­ized by stereo­types. Delve into specifics. What unique chal­lenges does an older per­son face? How does she cope day to day?

† Switch per­spec­tives. This in­volves imag­in­ing your­self as a mem­ber of the group you’ve been stereo­typ­ing. What would it be like if strangers pa­tron­ized you and called you “sweetie” or “dear,” for ex­am­ple?

† Make con­tact. In­ter­act with the peo­ple you’ve been stereo­typ­ing. Go visit and talk with that friend who’s now liv­ing in a re­tire­ment com­mu­nity.

Devine’s re­search hasn’t looked specif­i­cally at older adults; the ex­am­ples above come from other sources. But she’s op­ti­mistic that the ba­sic les­son she’s learned, “prej­u­dice is a habit that can be bro­ken,” ap­plies nonethe­less.

Em­pha­size the pos­i­tive. An­other strat­egy— strength­en­ing im­plicit pos­i­tive stereo­types— comes from Becca Levy, a pro­fes­sor of epi­demi­ol­ogy and psy­chol­ogy at Yale Univer­sity and a lead­ing re­searcher in this field.

In a 2016 study, she and sev­eral col­leagues demon­strated that ex­pos­ing older adults to sub­lim­i­nal pos­i­tive mes­sages about ag­ing sev­eral times over the course of a month im­proved their mo­bil­ity and bal­ance — cru­cial mea­sures of phys­i­cal func­tion.

The mes­sages were em­bed­ded in word blocks that flashed quickly across a com­puter screen, in­clud­ing de­scrip­tors such as wise, cre­ative, spry and fit. The weekly ses­sions were about 15 min­utes long, prov­ing that even a rel­a­tively short ex­po­sure to pos­i­tive images of ag­ing can make a dif­fer­ence.

At the fo­rum, Levy noted that 196 coun­tries across the world have com­mit­ted to sup­port the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion’s fledg­ling cam­paign to end ageism — dis­crim­i­na­tion against peo­ple sim­ply be­cause they are old. Bol­ster­ing pos­i­tive images of ag­ing and coun­ter­ing the ef­fect of neg­a­tive stereo­types needs to be a cen­tral part of that en­deavor, she re­marked. It’s also some­thing older adults can do, in­di­vid­u­ally, by choos­ing to fo­cus on what’s go­ing well in their lives rather than what’s go­ing wrong.

Claim a seat at the ta­ble. “Noth­ing about us with­out us” is a clar­ion call of dis­abil­ity ac­tivists, who have de­manded that their right to par­tic­i­pate fully in so­ci­ety be rec­og­nized and made pos­si­ble by ad­e­quate ac­com­mo­da­tions such as ramps that al­low peo­ple in wheel­chairs to en­ter pub­lic build­ings.


Neg­a­tive stereo­types about ag­ing need to be elim­i­nated. Se­niors are in­creas­ingly en­joy­ing ac­tive life­styles.

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