Stereotypes are unquestioned ‘myths’ or exaggerated ‘beliefs’ linked to a specific group, deemed ‘normal’ and widely accepted. Over time, these myths become ingrained in societal communication, both verbal and visual. Ageing stereotypes emerge when assumptions lead to generalisations about how older people should behave and what experiences they are likely to face. Unfortunately, these stereotypes often overlook individual differences and unique circumstances. Despite ageing being a highly individualised and complex process, it remains subject to stereotyping.
Older people are frequently perceived as a homogeneous group, potentially viewed as no longer contributing to their families and societies, even seen as burdens. However, the majority of older individuals prove these notions wrong daily. This article aims to highlight the impact of ageing stereotypes on health outcomes for older adults, encompassing physical and mental functioning, overall well-being, and perceived quality of life. The intention is to demonstrate that both positive and negative stereotypes of ageing can influence the actions, performance, decisions, attitudes, and, consequently, the holistic health of older adults, either enabling or constraining them.

  • Judith S Parnes, Sowmya Lakshmi

Is aging truly the most disparaging aspect of life? The aging process lacks grace in many societies worldwide today. A few decades ago, this was not the scenario in India, where elders were treated with utmost respect, holding a revered place in our society. Presently, the younger generation often ignore and neglect the elderly—criticising their appearance, noting a diminishing status in society, pointing out vulnerability in family, and lamenting the loss of companions and friends. Eventually, those who were once considered embodiments of energy and charm find themselves subjected to neglect and disregard by those close to them. The decline witnessed in the twilight years is a result of deep-seated cultural values prevailing in society and the acceptance of these beliefs by the elderly themselves.

On the other hand, In our social gerontology practice spanning the past two decades, we’ve consistently found that, for many individuals, the process of growing older is not synonymous with life-limiting declines in health. You’ve likely encountered stereotypes about old age depicted in popular culture, suggesting that growing old comes with inevitable declines in health—manifesting as sickness, forgetfulness, or feebleness. Yet, these widely held beliefs about aging are fundamentally flawed, much like many overused stereotypes.

If you start looking around in your own society you come to a conclusion that each elderly person is different. So aging is a highly individualised thing but definitely a complex process; yet it continues to be stereotyped. Originated in Western cultures, stereotyping and ageism is slowly permeating to Asian and African cultures. Stereotypes about a particular group will result in shaping how we think about and interact with individuals, also how individuals within the stereotyped group see themselves. Stereotypes are ‘unchallenged myths’ or ‘overstated beliefs’ associated with a particular group which are widespread and entrenched within our society in the form of verbal, written, and visual contexts. Stereotypes of ageing include assumptions and generalisations about how ‘old’ people should behave, and what they are likely to experience, without regard for individual differences or unique circumstances.

Since childhood we are signatories of stereotyping of older adults which ultimately result in ageism. As we grow older, we keep looking and searching for cues which support our prejudices and stereotypes. Ageism, a prejudiced attitude includes not only beliefs about ‘old age’, but also the feelings and actions directed towards that group. Older people are often wrongly viewed as a homogeneous group and the misconception holding the elders as who no longer contribute to their families and societies, and may even be a burden. The majority of older people prove these notions wrong every day, and it is an example that has inspired the WHO to focus on ageing.

Aging is an inherent process for every living being on Earth and should be embraced, as the alternative would be premature death. Each day of our lives contributes to our aging journey. An exemplary case is John H. Glenn, Jr., who, at the age of 77, ventured into space for a second time as part of a scientific experiment exploring the secrets of aging. Therefore, generalising that everyone becomes weak and infirm at an advanced age overlooks numerous exceptions in our community, where elders showcase heightened activities and enthusiasm. Contrary to common beliefs, many older individuals enjoy robust health, lead remarkably active and fulfilling lives, and possess intellectual, emotional, and social reserves often surpassing those available to younger people. This challenges prevailing myths about aging and older individuals.

Social perceptions and the advantages associated with old age differ across various communities and countries, influenced by customs and cultures. In numerous African and Asian countries, terms describing older individuals often highlight their wisdom. However, in certain cultures, these traditional values face the risk of erosion. In India, for instance, there was a historical reverence for elders who played decisive roles in households and communities. Older individuals can serve as invaluable assets to families and the community, offering a wealth of experience and knowledge. Let’s not overlook their contributions to society and hold them in high esteem.

At 92, Uncle Issac advises older adults facing challenges with self-image due to impairments. “Persevere with optimism. Hang in there. Don’t give up. And never feel sorry for yourself.” Dealing with a hernia and recovering from surgery, he looks forward to his next trip to Sri Lanka. Until 85 or 86, his dogs kept him active, serving as his companions after his wife’s death. Now caring for six strays, he emphasises accepting changes without denial, reassessing what’s possible with graciousness, and acknowledging the reality of interdependence when seeking help.

At the age of 80, Yuichiro Miura, a professional skier, made history by reaching the summit of Mount Everest in May 2013. Despite undergoing heart surgery just months before, he became the oldest person to conquer the world’s highest peak. Miura suggests that viewing 80 as a new starting point can add excitement to life and emphasizes the significance of having a goal. The next time a goal feels unattainable for you, consider these numerous inspiring individuals and keep in mind: It’s never too late to embark on something new.

Observe, and you’ll find numerous seniors like Issac Uncle, embracing active lifestyles, challenging the limits of age. They offer a unique outlook on aging, considering age merely as a number. Some take pride in their advanced years, wearing them like badges of honour. You need not do things which are extra ordinary like Miura, instead just lead ordinary lives but opt for graceful aging. You need to pursue a purpose in life in order to achieve graceful aging. If you’ve ever felt it was too late to pursue a goal, be pleasantly surprised—many seniors are defying age and relishing every moment.

In contemporary western culture, especially in North America, the stereotypical portrayal of old age tends to be predominantly negative. It depicts later life as a phase marked by ill health, loneliness, dependency, and diminished physical and mental functioning. However, in rare instances, stereotypes of aging can also take on positive or neutral dimensions, such as being healthy, wealthy, and wise. These stereotypes are not fixed; they evolve over time and vary across different contexts. Interestingly, older individuals themselves can contribute to the undesirable stereotypes, shaping views and perceptions about old age.

The complexity of older adults’ views on aging makes it a multidimensional and dynamic aspect. Stereotypes of aging are social constructs, influenced by cultural, historical, and individual interpretations. It’s crucial to note that any stereotype of aging has the potential to perpetuate ageism. Research conducted by Yale Professor Ms. Becca Levy, as part of the global campaign to combat ageism, has revealed the adverse effects of ageism on older individuals. The study, initiated by the Yale School of Public Health, is the first comprehensive review of ageism, considering both structural-level ageism, like denied access to healthcare for elders, and individual-level ageism. The research underscores the impact of stress-inducing negative age stereotypes absorbed from culture on the health of older individuals. The findings show strong evidence that ageism, leading to age discrimination or oppression, can worsen outcomes in mental health conditions, including depression, and various physical health conditions, contributing to a shorter life expectancy.

Certainly, stereotypes serve as the breeding ground for many misguided opinions. While some may perceive stereotypes as innocuous, for those subjected to them, they can be far from harmless. Ageism operates as a systematic process of stereotyping and discriminating against individuals based on their age, much like racism and sexism do with skin colour and gender. Our beliefs about broad demographic groups, including the mentioned examples, fundamentally shape how we treat individuals on a personal level and influence societal attitudes, addressing the issue and determining public policy.

Here are some of the ageist stereotypes and beliefs (myths) that older people frequently encounter:

Myth #1

“Elderly people are alike.”
• The premise that as we age we become more alike is not true.

Myth# 2

The majority of elderly persons are senile or demented.”
• We beg to differ about this myth. As we age, we agree our brains change, but Alzheimer's disease and related dementias are not an inevitable part of ageing. In fact, up to 40% of dementia cases may be prevented or delayed.

Myth # 3

Seniors have no more worries once they retire and start enjoying life.”
• Reality is that many seniors face poverty, isolation, grief, physical decline, loss of social stature and decreased control over their lives. These Stresses can be mitigated by family, friends, churches, public agencies or community networks.

Myth # 4

The elders do not have desire, and do not participate in, sexual activity.”
• Sexual activity and enjoyment do not decrease with age. There is a strong belief in our society that older people should not and/or cannot engage in sexual activity.

Myth # 5

Most seniors are set in their own ways and are resistant to change.”
• To a certain extent, many elders are resistant to change and to be unable to adapt to new situations. But someone who has active ageing and socially active, adjust to every situation. Older people must learn to adjust to changes such as retirement, disease, illness, death of family and/or friends and lifestyle.

Myth #6

“The elderly once they hang boots, tend to be unproductive and uncreative.”
• This is a very wrong notion. Many older adults remain active and productive throughout their lives. We would all be missing a great deal without their creativity.

Myth #7

“The elderly are slow learners, have diminished intelligence and more forgetful.”
• It depends more on chronological age. It may be true to very old people but definitely not true about older adults. Most seniors learn to master new gadgets and assimilate information like the youngsters.

Myth #8

“Elderly people are cranky and difficult to get along with.”
• This myth is absolutely wrong, because people behaviour depends on their personality. People who are introverts and not willing to get along with when they are young will be the same when they are old.

Myth #9

“The majority of elderly persons are socially excluded and lonely.”
• Many elderly people love to mingle and find avenues to be socially active. Most older adults have their circle of friends and relatives with whom they are constantly in touch. Social media participation is a boon to many seniors.

Myth #10

Age discrimination isn’t a real thing”.
• Ageism may be last bias left to be addressed which itself shows the very existence of it. And just like its first cousins sexism and racism, it is very real to those who experience it.