Why We've Formed Stereotypes About Aging – And How To Re-Think Them

May 24, 2019

Plenty of data show that the population of older Texans - and specifically, older Central Texans - is growing.  The numbers certainly tell one story about seniors. But it does not show how our society regards and treats them. Older Americans Month is a time to take a closer look at stereotypes, misconceptions and even jokes commonly aimed at seniors.

You have probably noticed subtle and not-so-subtle hints that the older among us are sometimes less highly regarded. Ever seen "over the hill" birthday cards for people turning 40 or over?

Junice and Rock Rockman are Central Texas life and relationship coaches certified by an International Coaching Federation-accredited program. They believe societal factors such as consumerism and lack of representation help form and perpertuate stereotypes about aging.

"When you don't see yourself reflected in your society," says Junice, "it's difficult to imagine what's possible for yourself and it's also difficult for other people to see you in that light when you're in that demographic."

Listen to the interview to hear more from the Rockmans about understanding and reconsidering society's assumptions about older people:

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity:

Junice Rockman: I think depending on the age of the person, you have to slow down to be able to engage with them. And we live in a rapid fire world, but it takes a lot to get those stories and build that rapport. And so it's not necessarily like an instant transaction, and that requires us kind of slowing down our own pace so that we can learn from - its living history. We get things from our elderly that we cannot get in a book. 

KUT: I think there are misconceptions about what it means to be a senior. We make assumptions about diminished capacity and things that aren't necessarily true. 

Junice Rockman: I think it's hard to accept the reality of what 65 or 70 is, especially when we have all these terms like “50 is the new 40 and 60 is the new 50.” It’s like we don’t want to embrace what is.

Rockman Rockman: You know as we begin to age, as we begin to become older - You start to think about for example “I’m x age, I should have been able to accomplish this by now;” or, “by this age I thought life would have been like this.” Or, that really interesting statement that you hear a lot of individuals say: “if I would have known then what I know now.” 

KUT: Our expressions of things like those over the hill birthday cards at 40 or  sending dead flowers or whatever that sort of joke is. Is that a way of wrestling with our own fears or concerns about aging?

Junice Rockman: I think it's a way of labeling ourselves, limiting ourselves, stereotyping ourselves - and if we're not in that bracket yet and someone got there before us, it's a way of trying to elevate ourselves. 

Rock Rockman: And then there's the fear of the unknown. You know the older we get, the closer we are to the end. And there was a time when people were 15, 20, 30 years on the job. You don't see that anymore in this day and age. People are five years plus and then they're on to the next thing. As you get older you start to feel, and it's really not fair, but you start to feel - OK where's my value if I'm 40 plus, 50 plus - where can I go, when they got a young whippersnapper fresh out of college who can give the company more time and more tenure?

Junice Rockman: The workplace is one of the places where ageism really begins. And where people don't even want to sometimes disclose their actual age because they feel that they will miss out on opportunities. And then it's interesting because consumerism - it urges all of us to fight this battle of aging. 

KUT:  There's so many messages and signals out there of things that we should buy to get rid of our gray hair or get rid of our wrinkles and what that says is - there's a problem here with gray hair or wrinkles or whatever the manifestation of aging is, but if you buy this thing well that'll fix it.

Junice Rockman:  It's asking us to fight a battle that there's no way we'll win because we're all going to age. I remember when one of our children was younger and one of their dolls broke or a toy broke a nose. They wanted to throw it away. And I think some relatives were like, “Okay we'll just get another one.” And I’m like “No no no no. It's still useful!” So we just patched it up and now they have all these different toys of different abilities. You know don't throw it away if it's not working exactly like it did before.

KUT: How do you think we go about changing some of those misconceptions and attitudes towards people who are older?

Junice Rockman: I think representation is key because when you don't see yourself reflected in your society, it's difficult to imagine what's possible for yourself and it's also difficult for other people to see you in that light when you're in that demographic. I know that there's a lot of elderly people in like AARP kind of commercials and prescription drug commercials. But what if we just had like some elderly people walking down a catwalk on a runway, and what if they were just in a commercial for McDonald's they had nothing to do with becoming a senior.

Rock Rockman: Representing them not by age, but just who they are.

Junice Rockman: And I think also intergenerational kind of communities, housing, social networking, intergenerational career opportunities - sort of mixing that so that it's not such a separate kind of thing would at least begin to help. But have you ever had anyone say to you: “You look good for your age.” Is that a backhanded compliment, or is that a complete compliment?

Rock Rockman:  “They still look amazing at 40.”  Well, all the other 40 year olds look terrible? Is that a major accomplishment? “This is impossible. They look amazing at 50.” We all look amazing, right?

KUT: There are things at a societal and general level to do to reverse misconceptions. But it does seem like there's also work to do about how we internally regard our own progression through life and aging that we could also look at making some changes that would help with all of this.

Rock Rockman:  Where we used to live some years ago, there were two ladies that we know - they were both the same age - and one had a young spirit about her. She was just all about life, very upbeat. And there was another lady. She was like a mother to everyone. And she kind of had that older shuffle about her and that was just how she wanted to present herself to the world. 

Junice Rockman: I don't know how much will ever be able to completely correct it, but I do think that as a society we tend to place more value on one versus the other right. We tend to value someone that can - that seems to be more mobile, more agile, more energetic. And I wonder even with hiring managers and with companies and employment opportunities if we would hire in more people that were over a certain age, it would probably do a lot to make people feel a lot more comfortable about disclosing their age and about aging where you don't have to try and hide it.