Speaker: Media mocks seniors

Dolores Ewen, like most Canadians over the age of 50, has grown accustomed to the negative way the media depicts her age group. She sees it everywhere-in movies, television shows and advertisements. But she recently saw a TV ad that went too far.

“I was stunned,” said Ewen, who lives in Lloydminster, Alberta. The offending ad dramatized how a major Canadian department store chain chose its fashionable clothing.

“It pictured a department store taking a survey of seniors,” she said, describing the ad. “If the seniors nixed a style, that was taken as an indicator it was ‘cool’ and fashionable.”

Negative stereotype
The ad has two messages-one noticeable, the other hidden. Clearly, it’s poking fun at older people’s fashion tastes, saying they are ridiculously out of style. But the subtext of the ad is more sinister, mirroring a growing feeling in society. Older people have become outdated. They are little use to society beyond being objects of derision.

“It was objectionable not only because it negatively stereotyped seniors.” said Ewen, “But it was also pernicious, planting the infection of ageism in our young.”

This ad is ju one example of the ageist way our visual media continually degrades older people with demeaning portrayals.

“Older people are essentially represented with ridicule,” said Laurier LaPierre, speaking at CARP’s Aging without Ageism symposium at the World Congress of Gerontology, held in Vancouver in July 2001.

Objects of ridicule
LaPierre, 71, is a Canadian senator and published historian. He has worked in the media (This Hour has Seven Days) since its early days. He says the media relishes certain stereotypes that are hurtful and hateful.

“There’s very little room for older people on TV, beyond being objects of ridicule,” he said.

“I seldom see an older person on TV who is a sane normal, functioning human being.” For some reason, the media thrive on representing seniors as eccentric or, in LaPierre’s words, “slightly cuckoo.”

“All sorts of crazy things happen to the older people on TV. They spend an hour looking for shoes which they eventually find in the refrigerator.”

The clear message behind these supposedly humourous incidents is that seniors are incapable of thinking or acting coherently. They become clownish absurdities, grist for the media’s humour mill.

Next page: Dark depiction

Dark depiction
But there’s also a dark side to these representation, found in the all-too-familiar depiction of the complaining senior.

“Films and TV shows often portray us as being bitchy, particularly women,” said LaPierre. So, on top of being mentally unsound, they are also not fun to be around.

Even when the media forgoes punishing character assassinations, it employs a more subtle way of reducing older people to non-entities. The old person on TV, said LaPierre, is not really a person at all. They’re depicted as a bewildered grandfather, a mentoring mother-in-law or a wacky older uncle-but never as an individual.

“Older people have no life of their own beyond these media-imposed titles.”

No passionate kissing
And because they’re not real and have no lives, the media doesn’t have to concern itself with the awkward question of older people in love. Negative stereotyping denies any possibility that older people might have real romance or passion in their lives.

“How many times have you seen older people kissing passionately?” LaPierre asked.

Only the daring writers and directors will take this risk because most know it a passionate older couple would make a younger audience feel uncomfortable.

He recounted watching an Australian film, a romantic story of two older people, happily sharing their love. The theatre audience, comprised mostly of people over the age of 50, followed the tale closely and, at the end, stood up and cheered. They’d finally seen a realistic depiction of the old that didn’t rely on the standard negative stereotypes.

Research shows reality
This fixation with portraying the old as ridiculous, eccentric and complaining actually flies in the face of reality. Research carried out on older Canadians suggests a completely different picture.

Though memory loss is an unquestionable fact of aging, an overwhelming number of seniors are mentally sound. According to Dr. Katherine Kissel, a Montreal geriatrician who also spoke at CARP’s Aging with Ageism symposium, only five per cent of those over the age of 65 are actually diagnosed with dementia.

Next page: Majority are active

Majority are active
Moreover, 75 per cent of those over 85 have a sound mind and live actively and independently in society.

These numbers may seem unbelievable because we seldom see the media pick up on them. LaPierre is not asking the media to provide any kind of special or tasteful treatment of older people. He’s after accuracy.

“I don’t want to be loved because I am old. I want people to take me as I am-a 71-year-old man with all the accumulation of life’s experiences, both good and bad.”

Media is ageist
Older people, he continued, are human beings and are entitled to the dignity and respect that other people enjoy. And he feels that the time has come for the media to wake up to the fact that their ageist portrayal of older people is both bigoted and inappropriate.

Dolores Ewen thought the same thing when she first saw the department store ad.

“If the same ad had shown blacks or aboriginals in the same light, there would have been a hue and cry about bigotry and racism. And rightly so,” she said. But the media continues with their ageist stereotypes and society doesn’t complain.

Advertiser didn’t respond
Once a stereotype has become ingrained it’s awfully difficult to change. But not impossible, says Ewen. She wrote a letter to the company responsible for the ad. To date she hasn’t received a response but remains undeterred.

Ewen strongly feels there are several ways that seniors can fight back or at least alert advertisers that they’re guilty of ageism.

“We can open our mouths and condemn it where we find it. And we can close our purses to those businesses that practise it.”