“Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be….” — Robert Browning
Did Browning imagine the effects of the culture of ageing in the Western world when he penned that famous line of poetry? Or did he expect the note of optimism contained in the poem to serve as an antidote to fear and anxiety about ageing?
A society’s cultural values influence individual experiences of ageism. When predominant values assume that everyone is young, negative attitudes toward growing old are acceptable and socially condoned. Ageing is something to be feared. Older people can be set aside in favour of youth.
A glaring incident demonstrating the culture of ageism recently made headlines in Canada.
Culture of Ageism — A Media Example
A few days ago Canadians were shocked by the announcement that one of Canada’s esteemed female news anchors, Lisa LaFlamme, at CTV was suddenly terminated. She announced this on social media describing the announcement with the word “blindsided”.
I am sad and angry at CTV for this abrupt termination. Lisa received every top award for Canadian journalism. She was appointed to the Order of Canada and the Order of Ontario for her outstanding contributions and influence during her career. Her demeanour and self-confidence when anchoring the flagship newscast left no doubts about her capacity in the role.
To me, this termination represents, again, the worst effect of the culture of ageing. It’s widely speculated that the termination was payback for her decision to let her hair go grey. She sported her long silver locks beautifully and served as a female role model. Lisa is 58 years old. Her predecessor, a male, worked as the news anchor until the age of 77, a fact that raises the question of sexism as well as the obvious concern about ageism.
CTV describes the decision to terminate LaFlamme as a business decision based on the network taking a new direction for news. Who believes that excuse? It’s a poor coverup for the executives who considered her too old for the look the network wanted.
CTV is no exception when it comes to ageist beliefs. Examples are everywhere.
In healthcare, the culture of ageing is deeply embedded in the attitudes of professionals, institutions, and policymakers. Illnesses in older people are often dismissed as age-related with proper diagnosis and treatment denied or delayed. During the worst of the COVID pandemic, the public was shocked by reports of high death rates of older people — especially those living in congregate care settings. It seemed as though letting older people die was okay. After all, they were on their way out anyway, so to speak.
The prejudices and stereotypes of ageing are evident in movies and television series. With few exceptions, mature actors, especially women, aren’t featured in major roles. Too often older people are shown as grouchy, wrinkled, slow, or forgetful. In sitcoms and comedy routines, the culture of ageing allows jokes and plotlines showing negative aspects of growing old. It’s impossible to watch any late-night talk show without hearing at least one ageist comment.
Readers already know how the beauty industry opts for young models to promote anti-ageing products! Somehow age is the antithesis of beauty. Was this why some young executive at CTV reacted to the silver hair of a competent news anchor?
I could go on and on calling out ageist beliefs. When it comes to technology, elders are seen as inept despite the fact that elders routinely use technology to manage their daily lives. And what about those damaging beliefs that old people are takers when it comes to pensions and government benefits while forgetting that people over 65 years of age control more than 50% of the wealth?
Childhood Beliefs About Aging
The cultural beliefs about aging start early. This summer I heard my 4-year-old grandson explain age in this way: Grandpa (my husband) is really old and needs to use his cane to walk; he walks slow. Gramma (me) is old but not as old as Grandpa. Poppy (his other grandfather) is also old and he sleeps a lot. Gram (his other grandmother) is getting old and needs special shoes because she has funny feet.
This hierarchy of aging surprised me. Obviously, even young children absorb the cultural messages of aging and use these constructs as they form beliefs and stereotypes of older people. I worry that these beliefs will translate into negative social attitudes based on the cultural standards my grandson sees around him.
While hibernating from the summer heat, I’ve been reading Becca Levy’s book, Breaking the Age Code. Levy writes eloquently about the cultural effects of ageism. She reminds us that ageism is baked into our culture. It remains the most prevalent and socially acceptable form of prejudice.
To combat ageism, Levy advocates increased awareness of negative age beliefs and the need to call out ageism. We can blame those who use ageism in their behaviours.
Today I’m calling out CTV Executives. This blog post won’t change LaFlamme’s termination but viewers like me can boycott the network and its advertisers. We can send a strong message that change is needed.