Carolyn R. Fallahi, Ph. D.
The facts about racism
 Unlike sexism and racism, ageism
continues to go largely
unacknowledged in day-to-day life in
the United States.
 The current social climate allows
people to say things freely about
older people that they would never
say about race or gender.
The facts about Ageism
 Ageism is so firmly embedded within the
social fabric of US culture that few people
even question the fact that age is
considered a legitimate reason for limiting
access to health care and productive
 Even though there is ageism in retirement
and hiring policies, insurance practices, and
other age-biased laws and policies,
empirical evidence for ageist behavior in
interpersonal settings is more elusive.
Misperceptions about old age
 Because of improved sanitation and
vaccination programs, infant mortality
has decreased.
 Many children are now able to live out
their entire life span.
 1900 – 4% of the US population was
over 65.
 Currently – 12%.
 2020: 24%.
The Scientific Study of Aging
 Older people do quite well! The
misconception is that they have more
problems than younger people.
 Not true…. With the exception of the
dementias (and older person’s
problem), the prevalence of all other
psychological problems decreases
later in life.
 Dementia is a disease of late life.
 It occurs far less often than many
 Only 5% of people over 65 suffer
from some form of dementia.
 This percentage increases with age;
but the majority of people will never
suffer from dementia.
 The prototype of an elderly person: on tv
they are portrayed as slow, confused, bent,
and dowdy.
 Elderly people fall squarely into the warm
and incompetent cluster of stereotyped
groups. People view them ambivalently as
physically and cognitively inept but socially
sensitive. Today’s elders are seen as low
status, which elicits perceptions of
incompetence and passivity.
Stereotype of the older person in a
nursing home
 This stereotype of a frail person in a
nursing home is misleading.
 Only 5% of older people live in
nursing homes at any point in time.
 The vast majority live independently
in the community.
The definition of Ageism
 Ageism: discrimination based on
chronological age.
 Ageism includes negative beliefs,
attitudes, and stereotypes about
elderly persons.
 Although ageist attitudes are
relatively easy to identify, it is unclear
how these attitudes translate into
actual behavior.
Ageist behaviors
 Ageist behaviors: behavior that
discriminates on the basis of
chronological age. Such
discrimination can involve overtly
hostile behavior, but it also includes
behaviorss that may appear quite
positive but that ultimately serve to
prevent elderly people from attaining
their goals.
Ageist Behavior
 Ageist behavior, then, must be
contingent upon chronological age
and must produce some sort of
harmful impact.
 Ageist behavior can involve overtly
hostile behavior, but it can also
include behaviors that may appear
quite positive but ultimately prevent
elderly people from attaining their
Ageist attitudes, beliefs and
 Behavior that is ageist is often
presumed to be associated with
underlying negative conceptions of
the old.
 First, we will look at evidence for
ageism based on research that
examines attitudes towards and
beliefs about the elderly.
 Conceptions of the old appear to be
more negative than positive.
 Research has found that age is a
highly salient dimension along which
people are categorized.
 Kite et. Al. (1991) found that age is
more of a social category than
 Both young and old people share
stereotypes of the elderly, although
there are some differences in their
Stereotypes are often in opposites
 For example: common stereotypes include
wise, demented, kind, grouchy,
experienced, incompetent.
 While the stereotypes of the elderly are
both positive and negative, people appear
to hold more negative than positive beliefs
about aging.
 Heckhausen et. Al. (1989) asked young,
middle-aged, and elderly adults to review a
list of adjectives such as dignified, fair
minded, shrewd, and powerful. Subjects
rated each adjective for the degree to
which it increased over the lifespan.
Heckhausen continued
 As people age, aging is apparently
perceived as a process involving
 Beliefs and stereotypes about the
elderly are ambivalent but tend to be
 Negative conceptions of the elderly
can be documented as soon as
children are able to discriminate age
among adults.
Overall there is more negative
 Overall, more negative stereotypes
about the elderly exist; negative
beliefs about aging exist; and elderly
people are evaluated more negatively
than young people.
The result of stereotypes
 Deaux (1984) expectancy model of
the effects of prejudice: stereotypes
about the elderly will lead the elderly
to develop specific expectations about
their performance on particular tasks.
 Negative attitudes and stereotypes
can influence the elderly’s selfefficacy beliefs about task
performance – beliefs that affect their
actual performance.
The elderly end up believing the
 If people perform as they expect to
perform on a given task, they
attribute that performance to stable
and internal causes. Thus
stereotype-consistent performance
leads people to believe in and accept
the specific implications of
stereotypes about them.
Some Examples
 For example, elderly people who are
aware of the stereotypes about aging
and memory may expect to perform
poorly on memory tasks.
 If they do perform poorly; they
assume that it is b/c they are old,
and make an attribution that
reinforces their expectations.
The results of ageism
 Medical settings:
 Gatz & Pearson (1988) suggest that even
though medical practitioners may not
hold negative attitudes toward the
elderly, they may possess specfic biases
regarding their treatment.
 For example, clinicians are more likely to
prescribe drug therapy than
psychotherapy for the elderly for the tx
of depression.
Physician – Patient communication
 Physician-patient communication can
be a problem, regardless of the age
of the patient.
 Studies show that patients remember
very little of what their doctors tell
them whether or not they are young
or old.
 Some research shows that this
phenomenon worsens when the
patient is old.
Physician response
 Further, physicians in general
addressed elderly patients with less
patience, engagement, and respect
that they showed to young patients.
 Young patients received more openended questions, more detailed
information about their conditions,
and more support from physicians –
factors that presumably contribute to
better treatment.
Why the difference?
 Why the difference in treatment? Some
say that the elderly are more passive
consumers of health care, and therefore do
not seek or desire the same kind of
treatment from doctors as younger
patients, nor were they more tense or
friendly than younger patients.
 The research of Green et. Al. found
substantial evidence that physicians treat
the elderly differently from the young. This
is especially important b/c the elderly
spend more time with their physicians than
any other segment of the population.
Institutional settings
 Babytalk to Elderly people: A glaring
example of age-differentiated
behavior in nursing homes is provided
by the literature on “babytalk”
directed to older adults.
 Babytalk is clearly present in nursing
homes. Staff members were
audiotaped. 22% of their talk was
judged as babytalk.
How does babytalk affect the
 While babytalk is quite pleasant for
infants; the elderly responds to is as
condescending when addressed to
competent adults.
Other examples: dependency
 In nursing homes, age-differentiated
treatment exists in the reinforcement
of specific behaviors that promote
dependency. Although residence in a
nursing home setting implies some
degree of dependency, elderly
residents can typically engage in a
considerable amount of independent
Nursing Homes
 Rodin (1986) found that engaging in
independent behaviors improves their
sense of efficacy in multiple domains.
 But one problem with the elderly acting
independently is that staff responses within
nursing homes decreases. Baltes et al.
showed that when residents engaged in
independent acts, staff members did not
respond to them. When they engaged in
dependent behaviors, dependence was
reinforced (e.g. staff attention).
Intergenerational communication
 The studies on intergenerational
communication are mixed.
 In one early study, Rubin & Brown (1975),
college students were asked to rate the
competence of people of arious ages acros
a variety of cognitive skills, some of which
are stereotypically believed to decline in old
age (e.g. memory) and others of which are
believed to increase (e.g. wisdom).
Intergenerational communication
 In general, students rated people’s
competence in these domains as curvilinear
– increasing until middle adulthood, and
then decreasing.
 Another project looked at the behavior of
children as they interacted with elderly
people (Isaacs & Bearison, 1986). Children
aged 4,6,and 8 were first asked about their
ageist attitudes. Four year olds did not
demonstrate ageist attitudes while 6 and 8
year olds did.
Intergenerational communication
 In this experiment, each child was
then brought into a room with a childsized table, chairs, and 2 jigsaw
 The E and an adult confederate were
in the room. Confederates were
either elderly adults (approximately
75 years old) or young adults
(approximately 35 years old).
Intergenerational communication
 All confederates were healthy, fashionably
dressed, and had professional exerience
working with children. Each child was
asked to work on the puzzle with the
 Behaviorally the children were quite
discriminating. They sat farther away from,
made less eye contact with, spoke fewer
words to, initiated less conversation with,
and asked for less help from aged
Intergenerational communication
 Montepare, Steinberg & Rosenberg
(1992) looked at college students’
speech to their grandparents and
 Speech directed at grandparents had
a higher pitch and was more
feminine, deferential, and unpleasant
than speed directed towards parents.
We keep the elderly at a distance
 Research also shows that we have a
tendency to keep people at a social
 If we didn’t do this, we might see
older people as a more variable
Other reasons to keep the elderly
at bay…. The threat of death
 Terror management theory suggests
that the elderly may represent a
threat to the young of their own fate:
the prospects of diminishing beauty,
health, sensation, and ultimately,