Many baby boomers want to improve the way people view aging, but an Oregon State University researcher has found they often reinforce negative stereotypes of old age when interacting with their own parents, coloring the way those seniors experience their twilight years. The study is available online in the Journal of Consumer Research.
Drawing on in-depth interviews with consumers in their late 80s, their family members, and paid caregivers, Oregon State University researcher Michelle Barnhart, PhD, found that study participants viewed someone as “old” when that person consumed in ways consistent with society’s concept of older people, and not simply when he or she experienced inabilities that come with increased chronological age.
“Our society devalues old age in many ways, and this is particularly true in the United States, where individualism, self-reliance, and independence are highly valued,” Barnhart says. “Almost every stereotype we associate with being elderly is something negative, from being ‘crotchety’ and unwilling to change to being forgetful.
“Conflicts come up when someone does not think of themselves as old,” Barnhart adds, “but people in their family or caregiving group are treating them as such.”
Barnhart says her study explains how consumption activities, which can range from buying groceries to attending medical appointments, serve as a means of identifying someone as old. They also serve as a venue for working through conflicts that arise when older consumers who do not identify themselves as old are treated as an “old person” by family members and service providers.
“When people in their 80s or 90s exhibited characteristics that society tends to associate with people who are not old, such as being aware, active, safe, or independent, they were viewed and treated as not old,” Barnhart says. “In this way, they were able to age without getting old.”
When perception-triggered conflicts arose, older consumers used various strategies to negotiate their identity with others. Sometimes they attempted to convince others of their not-old identity through verbal arguments. Other times, they tried to prove that they were not old by independently performing activities. Another strategy was to force a change, such as shutting out their younger family member entirely.
Barnhart said the adult children of elder consumers in the study were primarily in their 50s, and often voiced that baby boomers would change how people view old age, but she says unless society stops devaluing and marginalizing older people, this will not happen.
“Unless we change the way we view old age, the generation younger than the boomers will treat them the same way as soon as they show a few more wrinkles, or seem a bit shaky on their feet,” she says.
— Source: Oregon State University