SENIOR POWER:"Age Strong! Live Long!"

By Helen Rippier Wheeler
Tuesday May 04, 2010 - 07:12:00 PM

May is Older Americans Month. Older than what?, I ask and receive a dull look. 55? 60? 65? It all depends…  

This year's theme -- "Age Strong! Live Long!" -- recognizes the diversity and vitality of today's older Americans who span 3 generations.  

A meeting with the National Council of Senior Citizens resulted in President John F. Kennedy designating May 1963 as Senior Citizens Month, encouraging the nation to pay tribute to older people across the country. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter’s proclamation changed the name to Older Americans Month, a time to celebrate those 65 and older through ceremonies, events and public recognition. 

Elders are getting some positive attention because more people are living longer. Old people in general are better educated, retiring earlier and living longer. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of people age 65 or older has tripled over the past 50 years to a record 420 million worldwide.  

The way a society (the dominant culture) perceives a person or a group of people can restrict and assign them to certain roles. In 1940, Bernard M. Baruch (1870-1975) -- then 70 years old -- declared “Aging is not ‘lost youth’ but a new stage of opportunity and strength.” The 20th Century did not find the secret of eternal youth. A term coined in France described the period of active old age as the ‘third age,’ following the ‘first age’ of childhood and youth and the ‘second age’ of adult maturity. The later, less active and independent phase of life was the ‘fourth age.’ (Read more about this in Pat Thane’s splendid book, “A history of old age,” published by the J Paul Getty Museum in 2005.)  

“Forever young?” asks the May 2010 issue of Consumer Reports, and responds with “What works – and what doesn’t -- in the ongoing quest for youth.” Baldness remedies, hiding hair loss, hair dyes (rated on a scale of 10 for gray coverage), and anti-wrinkle serums (“inflated claims and limited results”) are evaluated.  

One’s image can influence the way a person sees her or himself. It can also impact opportunities for employment, pension income, legal equity and health.


The bulletin board announces that a man and his sons, ages 5 and 7, “challenge” residents of a low-income senior/disabled housing project to scrabble and dominoes. Someone has scribbled “BRIDGE CHESS POKER” across it.  

Members of a group of senior citizens (women) and a disabled person (man) are urged to volunteer. Crocheting is imposed as an example. Silence. Each is then queried regarding current volunteering, in a double whammy of ageism involving both role assignment and assumption.


Ageism is any discrimination against people on the basis of chronological age. Referring to a person's age in a context in which age is not relevant reinforces society’s emphasis on youth as the optimum stage of life. In the workforce, “older workers” become another group to be demeaned or protected. In the media, women are often designated as ‘grandmothers.’  

The metaphor for happiness is youth. Advertisers sell images of happiness and well-being. Consider TV commercials’ biased role assignments, stereotypes and image distortion (toothpaste or Coke, for example). Senior groups, service providers, and academics in the United States and Canada note that ageism can be a factor in elder abuse.  

The cautious health system, allied with pharmaceutical companies, imposes “consulting family members” while the demographics of aging clearly show that old people often do not have families. Possibly, they are happily single, never married, widowed… Moreover, many have never been parents, let alone grandparents. 

A University of Florida study report contends that contemporary children’s books now depict upbeat, active and wise grandparents. Do you agree? A generation ago they were portrayed in children's literature as grumpy, mean or doddering. Today, when old people (let’s say age 65+) appear in picture books, easy books, comics and stories, they are still too often characterized as grandparents or in ageist ways that connote illness, disability or death. 

Ways to analyze children’s books for positive images are similar to those applicable to racism and sexism. When selecting library books, book purchases for children, and books to read to and with them:

Look for portrayals of aging as a natural and lifelong process-- old workers, old people in the community, old leaders, famous old people, active and capable old people, similarities between young and old, and intergenerational activities.  

Consider the author’s or illustrator’s background and perspective. Yes, a book that deals with the feelings and insights of an old person should be more carefully examined if written by a young person. And be careful when selecting reviewers.  

Consider the latest copyright date. Although a recent copyright date does not guarantee relevance or sensitivity, the year a book was published can be a clue as to the content’s ageist, racist or sexist concepts, illustrations or terms.  

Look for and reject language and illustrations that may be ageist. Watch out for authors and reviewers who misuse words like eccentric, elderly, feisty, geezer, spry, spunky. Reject sexist language and adjectives that exclude or ridicule old women; generic use of the word ‘man’ is outmoded.


For an email attached list of some Pre K - Grade 6 – YP good books published within the current decade that are in print and or libraries’ collection(s), email  


The number of conferences concerned with aging and scheduled worldwide in the next few months is impressive. Here are a few of those being held in Canada and the U.S.:  

On May 13, a “Silver Economy Summit: An aging population will change how you do work...are you ready?” begins in Halifax. Also in May, the International Society for Gerontechnology holds its 7th World Conference, in Vancouver. In September, "Connecting Research & Education to Care in Seniors’ Mental Health” will be considered, in Halifax; October will see the 5th International Dementia Conference, in Penticton, and November, the 2nd Conference on Positive Aging, in Vancouver.  

Meanwhile, in the United States, the Florida Conference on Aging meets in August in Orlando. In September, there’s the 2010 International Conference on Aging in the Americas, in Austin; in November, the annual meeting of the Gerontological Society of America, New Orleans.  





Helen Rippier Wheeler can be reached at  

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