“Never judge a book by its cover” is one of the first idioms we learn, and it happens to be the basis of social gerontology, a field of study that dismantles the social constructs society builds around aging.
Most people do not have regular interactions with older adults outside of their families. They assemble their knowledge about aging from media portrayals and brief encounters with older adults. This has led to more and more people making assumptions on aging, and perpetuating stereotypes and misconceptions about the reality of living as an older adult.
Part of the difficulty of integrating younger generations and older generations is that the nature of society separates us by age. From birth, we are put into schools and clubs that track us by age.
Additionally, children are perhaps the most susceptible to negative media portrayals. In“The Development of Children's Prejudice Against the Aged,” Leora W. Isaacs and David J. Bearison found that by the time children enter middle school, they have already developed negative opinions of older adults. This has added to a lack of knowledge on aging, and the development of aging myths.
Social gerontology seeks to dispel these myths, advocating equal treatment of older adults through speeches, presentations, and public education programs.
Ageism: Stereotyping and Prejudice
In the book “Ageism: Stereotyping and Prejudice Against Older Persons,” Todd Nelson writes that age prejudice is “the most socially condoned, institutionalized form of prejudice in the world – especially the United States.” Ageism is perpetrated through institutional policies that perpetuate stereotypes through discriminatory practices toward older adults – meaning that older adults find themselves discriminated against in the workforce, in the media, and in the health care system.
In the Workforce
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 prevents employers from laying off anyone over 40 based on age, but age discrimination is still widespread in the workplace. Nelson cites jokes, expressed ageist attitudes, and discriminatory attitudes in regard to hiring, firing, and decision making as forms of discrimination still practiced in the workplace. The assumption that older adults are incapable of performing their jobs contributes to negative feelings about aging, and causes others to view older adults as a burden.
These feelings are likely to change in time, however. According to statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of people in the workforce aged 55 and older is expected to increase by 43% between 2008 and 2018 to nearly a quarter of the total working population. As more older adults continue with their careers, societal perceptions of older age will likely change, reducing age discrimination in the workplace.
In the Media
In “Understanding Communication and Aging,” author Jake Harwood writes that older adults represented only 3% of characters in major prime-time shows in 1999, despite making up nearly 15% of the real world population. Of those that are represented, they are frequently shown as incapable yet nonthreatening individuals who are slow to understand new concepts.
One of the main goals of social gerontology is to educate the public – including those in the media – on how older adults are as productive as their younger counterparts. Social gerontologists do this by producing information booklets, videos, public presentations, and speeches. For example, Success in Aging TV (successinaging.tv) produces informative videos on aging for the public, and is used as an educational tool for gerontologists.
Ageism in the health care industry is especially worrisome. The Alliance for Aging Research identifies five areas where the health care industry fails older adults:
- Health care professionals do not receive enough training in geriatrics to properly care for many older patients.
- Older patients are less likely than younger people to receive preventive care.
- Older patients are less likely to be screened for diseases and other health problems.
- Medical interventions for older patients are often ignored, leading to inappropriate or incomplete treatment.
- Older adults are consistently excluded from clinical trials, even though they are the largest users of approved drugs.
Gerontologists also will be needed to educate older adults on the options available to them in health care, helping to empower them to make their own health care decisions. Many older adults do not report early warning signs of sickness or disease. Social gerontology works to educate older adults about dangerous physical and mental health disorders, to ensure they will report symptoms of illnesses to health providers.
How do I Get Involved?
If you're interested in promoting the realities of aging, social gerontology will prove to be a rewarding field for you. Social gerontologists have degrees in social work, gerontology, psychology, and other social science fields. People who work as social gerontologists are counselors, caretakers, community organizers, and service providers for older adults. First and foremost, a social gerontologist must be passionate about advocating for older adults.
In the 1930s, only 7 million older adults lived in America. This number has exploded to over 35 million today. With the baby boomer generation poised to enter older age within the next 20 years, interactions between younger generations and older generations are all but inevitable. Social gerontology will be instrumental in educating younger – and older – members of society about the aging process.
To learn more information from schools offering degree programs in social gerontology.
Myths Associated with Aging
One of the primary purposes of social gerontology is to debunk myths that are constructed around growing older. Roger F. Landry, a medical doctor who has specialized in successful aging, identified five misconceptions regarding aging, and provided facts countering them.
Aging means Alzheimer's
Ignorance of the aging process has led to assumptions about diseases and illnesses that affect older adults. In reality, Alzheimer's only affects 10% of those older than 65, according to Landry. Staying physically and mentally active can help to prevent onset of the disease.
Aging means no contribution to society
As the baby boomer generation approaches older age, our conceptions of aging will change. The boomer generation is more interested than their parents' generation in working part time or volunteering after retirement. In addition, Landry writes that nearly half of the population over 65 volunteers on a regular basis.
Aging means physical inactivity
Older adults are increasingly staying physically active with age. Yoga, walking, and swimming are some key activities many older adults participate in to remain healthy. Senior community centers often offer wellness exercises for older adults.
Aging means the end of learning
“You can't teach an old dog new tricks” is an old saying that older adults are disproving each year. Landry writes that learning is a life-long experience, and older adults are the fastest growing demographic of computer users. Many universities are also providing continued learning opportunities for older adults, offering courses and presentations on a variety of subjects.
Aging means loneliness and depression
New inclusive programs and senior living communities have allowed older adults to remain socially active well into their later years. Older adults today can enlist in a variety of clubs, groups, and special events to meet others, and connect with friends.