In a year when ageing and later life have featured so powerfully in news reporting on Covid-19, we have witnessed an explosion of ageist and stereotypical images of older people. While the hashtag #NoWrinklyHands has been around for quite some time, media organisations have excelled in linking stock images of older people’s body parts to any type of story that touches even vaguely on issues of ageing.
Researchers whose work focuses on social aspects of ageing have long recognised the damaging impacts of ageism and ageist attitudes in society. When Robert Butler developed the term ‘ageism’ in 1969, he defined this as “prejudice by one age group against another age group” (Butler 1969, p.243). Ageism is regarded as one of the main forms of prejudice that remains widely tolerated in countries like the UK.
In the half century that has followed Butler – a period marked by major changes in the age structure of our societies alongside other significant developments, including increasing individualism and a relentless shift to digital technologies – scientists are still interested in what constitutes ageism.
In their recent book, Liat Ayalon and Clemens Tesch-Römer (2018) define ageism as the “complex, often negative construction of old age, which takes place at the individual and the societal levels” (p.3). This links to work that describes different forms of ageism.
Writing in the 1990s, Julia Johnson and Bill Bytheway (1993: 205) drew attention to three particular types of ageism:
- Institutional ageism relates to the ways in which age discrimination is embedded in our social and political structures through, for example, the application of age thresholds that govern who can do what at a particular chronological age.
- Internalised ageism concerns the negative and prejudicial beliefs that people hold, leading to the use of derogatory language to refer to older people or encouraging individuals to mask the signs of their own ageing.
- Benevolent patronage, sometimes referred to as compassionate ageism, refers to all sorts of assumptions that are made about older people being dependent, in need of special protections, and incapable of making decisions without the support of other people.
These forms of ageism are well described in research and also form part of most older people’s experiences of everyday life. In many ways, the Covid-19 pandemic has only served to render more visible the deep-seated nature of ageism within society. However, another form of ageism has emerged as being especially troublesome during 2020. Visual ageism has been described as “the social practice of visually underrepresenting older people or misrepresenting them in a prejudiced way” (Loos & Ivan 2018).
How else can we make sense of the stock images of older people’s body parts that have characterised the pandemic? The ubiquity of hands images, often wrapped around walking sticks, disembodies and devalues older lives. So too do images of older people’s torsos or legs. Taken together, such ageist images reduce older age to a single, often negative, identity and consequently fail to represent the incredible diversity of later life. By emphasising frailty, vulnerability, dependency, decline, proximity to death, isolation and loneliness, media organisations are engaged in a systematic process of misrepresenting older age in a highly prejudiced way.
Fortunately, there is a growing movement that recognises the damage caused by ageism and has the means to respond. Straightforward guidance is now available about how to avoid stereotypical representations of older people. There is advice about the do’s and don’ts of selecting images to use in published documents. And individuals are able to challenge the use of negative images through their social media accounts or through more traditional letter writing.
If anything positive is to emerge from the terrible experience of Covid-19, it has to be that many people are now better attuned to the existence of ageism in society. It’s our collective responsibility to ensure that this type of prejudice, in all its forms, becomes unacceptable and ceases to be tolerated in a civilised society.
Professor of Social Gerontology
Population Health Sciences Institute, Newcastle University
Ayalon L. & Tesch-Römer C. (2018) Introduction to the Section: Ageism—Concept and Origins. In: Ayalon L., Tesch-Römer C. (eds) Contemporary Perspectives on Ageism. International Perspectives on Aging, vol 19. Springer, Cham. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-73820-8_1
Butler, R. (1969) Age-ism: Another form of bigotry, The Gerontologist, 9(4), pp. 243-246
Johnson, J. & Bytheway, B. (1993) Ageism: concept and definition. In: Johnson, J. & Slater, R. (eds) Ageing and Later Life, London: Sage, pp. 200-206
Loos E., Ivan L. (2018) Visual Ageism in the Media. In: Ayalon L. & Tesch-Römer C. (eds) Contemporary Perspectives on Ageism. International Perspectives on Aging, vol 19. Springer, Cham. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-73820-8_11