Wednesday, October 5

Eliminate stereotypes to claim old age

The dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy defines “old age” as follows:

1. f. Old quality. 2. f. Senile age, senescence. 3. f. Ailments, manias, attitudes typical of the age of the old. 4. f. Said or narration of something very known and vulgar.

Clearly, this definition determines a negative conception of old age, which has penetrated social and cultural discourses. If this negative concept is repeated over and over again in the public sphere, what is produced and perpetuated is age discrimination. In fact, age is the third cause of discrimination in Spain, only surpassed by gender and racial discrimination.

Age discrimination is called ‘ageism’, a term that was coined by Robert Butler in 1969, who defined it as “a process of systematic stereotyping and discrimination against people because they are older”. Ageism is considered part of the social system whose members develop a negative concept of aging from an early age; that is, an internalized ageism. Likewise, hegemonic social discourses have portrayed life after retirement as a time of decrepitude, fragility, dependence, loss of sexual vigor, social isolation, passivity, lack of physical attractiveness, and lack of productivity. It is this negative homogenization of aging that needs to be eliminated in order to avoid discrimination against the elderly.

However, it is also necessary to indicate that there is an internalized ageism, which occurs when age stereotypes contribute to discrimination both towards oneself and towards others.

This ageism is also intergenerational and affects the perception that older people have of young people and children and vice versa. For example, young people are also homogenized with characteristics such as being irresponsible, uneducated, conflictive or lazy, among others. In the same way, young people internalize stereotypes about old age in such a way that when they get older they tend to have a negative perception of those who are older, older. Instead of fueling the generational conflict (for example, the one that results from blaming the ‘baby boomers’ for the job insecurity suffered by young people and the pension piggy bank, or young people for the spike in infections during the last waves of COVID-19), solidarity between the different generations should be encouraged and thus help to eliminate this internalized ageism and resolve the intergenerational conflict it creates.

As the definition of the RAE makes clear, both written and visual language have the power to set stereotypes, prejudices and discrimination against older people. This ageism emerges in the social sphere in many ways; for example, in the way we address older people: calling them old/old, old men/old women, grandparents/grandmothers or grannies/grandmothers is ageism. Talking about nursing homes or nursing homes is also ageism; as is addressing older people using diminutives or infantilizing them. Taking for granted that older people do not understand what we are talking about is ageism, as well as thinking that they cannot learn new things or deal with new technologies.

The health crisis caused by COVID-19 has made older people become a media focus, thus revealing the existence not only of stereotypes, but of an ageist language that has become naturalized and normalized. Moreover, despite the fact that there is a guide, ‘The use of language against ageism and stereotypes’, supported by Imserso, during the pandemic we have not stopped hearing and reading a thousand times words like old / old, elderly /old women, grandparents/grandmothers, grannies/grandmothers, dependents, retirees, pensioners, our elders, etc. Even the photographs that accompanied the news reveal the dehumanization to which older people are subjected by showing a part of their body, usually the hands (and usually of a woman), often holding a cane. Why the hands to show the elderly? Is old age not worth looking at? Only the young can be portrayed? Does every old person need a cane?

Neoliberal austerity agendas have highlighted a policy of active or successful aging with the aim of, on the one hand, delaying the medical costs that the aging of the population may entail for state coffers, and, on the other, opening a countless market spaces for the consumption of the elderly. In this sense, physical activity (gyms), sexual activity (Viagra), tourism, leisure, cosmetics, cosmetic surgeries… become consumer products that favor and support both healthy aging and conception of old age as a space of consumption. However, what this active aging does is emphasize that positive aging is limited to classes with moderately high purchasing power.

The importance given to positive aging has led to a distinction between the third age and the fourth age. The third age of neoliberalism is characterized as the age of retirement in which leisure, self-realization, health and social commitment stand out. In old age we are older, but not ‘old’, so independence is maintained. On the contrary, the fourth age implies the lack of autonomy and individuality and the presence of imminent death. In the fourth age, older people are stripped of their social and cultural capital and displaced to nursing homes or relegated to seclusion in the space of the house. Obviously, this emphasis on productivity and successful aging leaves the chronically ill, the disabled, or those who prefer not to be active or cannot be active for economic reasons as a problem for society, due to their complacency with being ‘old’; hence they are separated and discriminated against.

The unwanted loneliness of the elderly is a major social problem in Spain. According to the INE, in 2020, 2,131,400 people over the age of 65 lived alone, of which 1,511,000 were women. By age, 44.1% of women over 85 years of age lived alone, compared to 24.2% of men. Unwanted loneliness occurs when it is not chosen, but imposed, and can affect our well-being and health. Discrimination, prejudice and stereotypes are determining factors of unwanted loneliness, hence the urgency to change the perception of old age and aging. The work that various NGOs (Amigos de los Mayores, Fundación Pilares, Aging in Network or Matia Fundazioa) are carrying out to accompany older people, develop their creative capacity and promote their social participation is essential. As these NGOs claim, a new model of accompaniment and care is necessary in which empowerment, individual identity and autonomy are recognized and prioritized.

Ultimately, older people have the right to make decisions for themselves, to strengthen their social relations and to obtain non-discriminatory medical benefits that affirm their dignity as human beings. For these reasons, ensuring that the human rights of older persons are respected must be a primary objective of any social policy.