Sixty-five isn't what it used to be: Changes and trends in the perceptions of older adults.

Author:Plikuhn, Mari


With increasing life expectancy, adults can look forward to more years after age sixty-five than previous generations, many with better health, financial stability, and increased expectations of social activity. Yet, many Americans feel that the "golden years" are anything but idyllic, perceiving that older adults face a lonely life filled with health, financial, and medical worries. However, as the baby boomer generation has approached that stage in the life course, more Americans are confronted with a changing image of what it means to be sixty-five years or older. Given the fluctuating portrayal of older adults in television, (1) advertising, (2) and in popular magazines, (3) Americans may perceive older adults differently from previous generations. These shifting perceptions of older adults and the concerns they face not only impact how society sees these individuals and the roles they fill, but also how members of society anticipate the aging process and the expectations they have for themselves. Using two studies- Myth and Reality of Aging (4) from 1974 and the American Perceptions of Aging in the 21st Century (5) from 2000- we discuss changing trends in perceptions of adults sixty-five years or older. Specifically, we explore the following questions: 1) how are the lives older adults perceived?; 2) how have perceptions of older adults changed over the last thirty-five years?; and 3) how might the baby boomer generation influence perceptions of the lives of older adults?

Aging Stereotypes

Theories looking to explain stereotypes suggest that they perform a variety of functions, from providing shortcuts when making judgments about unknown individuals or situations, (6) to a reaction to various social roles, (7) to helping to form social identity. (8) Though stereotypes can be both negative and positive, they are more likely to be negative and lacking in recognition of variance when about members of out-groups as opposed to those held about an individual's ingroup. (9) In addition, demographic variables such as age, race, and gender can trigger automatic and specific types of stereotypes that are primed from social cues and interactions (10) primarily because American culture is filled with information that reinforces these stereotypes. (11)

Studies on portrayals of older adults suggest that aging stereotypes form early in childhood (12) and fortification of these perceptions occurs throughout adulthood. (13) Beyond influencing how individuals view older adults and the aging process, the internalization of these stereotypes can lead to assumptions about one's own aging process. As people age, stereotypes are further enhanced by negative images found throughout daily life. Implicit attitudes toward aging, often originating from past experiences and encounters, can be characterized as "automatic associations people have between an object and evaluation." (14)

In contrast to implicit attitudes, explicit attitudes toward aging might be a more premeditated response to a more recent event. Often these internalized forms of reinforcement will go unrecognized because the events do not immediately pertain to that individual. (15) As a consequence, aging stereotypes become aging self-stereotypes once people reach an age for which the stereotypes become relevant. For decades, primes such as family, community, and media have reinforced aging stereotypes internalized during childhood making them selfstereotypes that often pass from generation to generation. (16) Even labels used for older adults, such as "elderly," "aged," or "senior citizen," can convey the stereotypes of frailty, ill-health, and senility. That is why it is more common, particularly in gerontology and sociology, to use the terms "older adults" or "elders" when referring to individuals aged sixty-five or older, as these labels carry more positive connotations. (17) Thus, aging stereotypes exist across the life course, and are reinforced by messages continuously provided through various aspects in society and, as an individual ages, experiences combine with these messages to provide an oftennegative view that can affect perceptions of self-aging. For this paper, we discuss some of these common and changing stereotypes that Americans of any age may have toward older Americans and the aging process, particularly: loneliness, not having enough money to live, not having enough job opportunities, poor health, not having enough medical care, and fear of crime.

Loneliness in Older Adulthood

As Americans age, the thought of loneliness and isolation can be daunting; in fact, older Americans continue to value autonomy as they age. (18) Many older adults prefer "intimacy at a distance," (19) or the wish to have continuous and meaningful contact with their children and other kin, but do not wish to reside in the same household. This, coupled with the decline in multigenerational family households across the twentieth century, (20) encourages the stereotyped image of older adults living a desolate existence alone. However, alone does not always translate into lonely. (21) Though there is often a relationship between loneliness, social isolation and living alone, it is usually the case that older adults experience less loneliness than what is perceived and measured by others. (22)

Given these multifaceted trends balancing the desire for autonomy with the challenges of solitary living, we hypothesize that the perception of loneliness as a problem for older adults will be greater for those who are younger than sixty-five than for those who are over sixty-five. Further, with the decline in multigenerational family households over the latter part of the twentieth century, we hypothesize that this perception of loneliness as a problem for older adults will increase for both age groups between 1974 and 2000.

Financial and Employment Concerns in Older Adulthood

Both older men and older women believe that monetary resources are important factors across the life course. (23) Financial advantages early in life can help provide educational opportunities, productive environments, and occupational successes. These foundations, in turn, can provide higher wages, more opportunities, and other advantages, such as maintaining good health in later years. (24) When comparing younger Americas with older Americans, the perception of monetary satisfaction derive from different sources: younger Americans are more concerned with achieving a higher, more prominent socioeconomic status as they age, whereas older Americans are more concerned with upholding the economic status they have already achieved. (25) This means that younger adults may perceive financial concerns as more pressing for older adults than older adults perceive for themselves.

One component of having enough money as one ages is concerns for opportunities for employment in later life. Myths about older adults in the workforce often stem from the belief that as people age, their ability to perform work- related tasks declines or that they are not as motivated to learn more about their field. (26) Yet many older Americans are in good health, willing to learn new skills in order to improve the workplace, and are flexible in terms of pay, position, and hours. (27) Further, the traditional assumption that sixty-five is the prime age to retire so that people can "relax and enjoy their golden years" has changed dramatically, with the baby boomer generation working for longer into their older years than previous generations. (28) These stereotypes regarding aging can lead to ageism in hiring, preventing older workers from finding the employment opportunities they would like to pursue, (29) particularly if employers prefer to higher younger employees who are cheaper to employ. (30)

With increased life expectancy requiring financial security for longer into the later years, and strong stereotypes contributing to employment prospects, we hypothesize that the perceptions of not having enough money to live and not enough job opportunities as problems for older adults will be greater for those who are younger than sixty-five than for those who are over sixty-five. Further, as older adults have expected to continue working into later years than previous generations, we hypothesize that this perception of not having enough money to live and not enough job opportunities as problems for older adults will decrease for both age groups between 1974 and 2000.

Declining Health and Medical Access for Older Adults

The perception of, or concern about, poor health may stem from the fear many older adults have that they will need caregiving as chronic illness and physical impairments increase. (31) With the increase of the "sandwich generation-" or adults who may need to care for their children and their parents simultaneously- many adults may have experienced the caregiving role by assisting parents or grandparents as they aged and fear the role declining health plays in the aging process. (32) The combination of the stereotype of the "frail and sickly elderly" and personal experience helping previous generations through the aging process can lead to the perception that all older adults face poor...

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