Distorted Images: The Elderly and the Media

by Linda-Marie Delloff

Dr. Delloff is managing editor of The Christian Century and has had experience with the White House and the United Nations on Aging.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 7-14, 1987, p. 12. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


There is a significant gap in the knowledge which media and most professionals, including the clergy, have about the aging process, particularly its emotional components. Even many physicians are relatively uninformed; and, surprisingly, psychiatrists and other mental health specialists seem particularly limited where the elderly are concerned, despite the fact that large numbers of older people experience depression and other emotional stresses.

Virtually all experts agree that this rapid increase will most certainly outdistance most societies’ abilities to cope with it, and they anticipate a proliferation of problems, especially in the poorer countries. At the same time, gerontology as a discipline is itself experiencing growth pangs. Relatively new as a specific field of study, it has developed especially quickly during the past 20 years. However, it still tends to be structured on national bases, and so far there are only the beginnings of an organized international movement. (This is also true in the social service field dealing with aging, though somewhat less so.) Both types of advocates came together on a truly international basis for the first time at the 1982 United Nations World Assembly on Aging, held in Vienna -- the debut of a UN-sponsored event in this field. The assembly produced a plan of action recommending substantial policy developments to its member nations. It also served admirably as an opportunity for government-employed specialists in aging to meet one another, as well as those nongovernmental participants present. However, it frequently became bogged down in the same type of political wrangles that characterize many UN-related events, and valuable planning time was thus lost. Clearly, there is a need for other forums in which international exchanges take place in a less-heated atmosphere.

Such a gathering took place late this past fall in Madrid, the European headquarters of cosponsor Opera Pia International for Active Aging (OPIAA) , a Catholic group long involved in innovative work with the elderly in a number of nations. Also sponsoring the event was Rome-headquartered Interpress, a nonprofit news service that focuses on the Third World. Held with the cooperation of the UN Fund for Population Activities, the meeting convened around a particular focus: the image of the elderly in the media. Coming from all parts of the globe, participants included professional gerontologists, social service providers -- both religious and secular -- and specialists from both broadcast and print media: writers, editors, directors, producers, administrators and others. While the conclave was not designed to embrace a specifically religious perspective, it was noteworthy that even many of the representatives of secular organizations attributed their interest in aging at least partially to their own churches’ influence and traditional support for the elderly.

Though the conference theme was primarily addressed to images of aging in the media, dialogue flowed in a variety of related directions as well, with the most important subtopic emerging as the relationship of the elderly to various media forms.

Of the few elders who do appear on TV in one or another capacity, noted Heisel, almost all are male: only one in ten characters judged to be 65 or older is a woman. Thus, she said, if we assume that what has meaning and status for society finds, its way onto television screens, the message conveyed seems to be that the elderly are not very important, and that among that population group, only men have significance. In referring to research of other gerontologists, Heisel also observed that when older persons do appear on screen, they tend to be "more comical, stubborn, eccentric, and foolish than other characters." She also cited a 1977 Annenberg School of Communication survey of more than 9,000 television characters, which determined that only 3.7 of them were elderly; moreover, compared to other groups, these individuals were portrayed as ineffective, unattractive and unhappy.

Though very little of this type of information is available for non-Western nations, there is enough to be alarming. For example, several projects have recently examined media images of the elderly in Japan, a nation traditionally cited for its reverence toward its elders. However, as Japan has surpassed even the U.S. in its industrial, technological and consumerist ethos, the historic respect accorded the elderly has been disappearing quite dramatically from its cultural and social attitudes. Heisel reported a study comparing Japanese and American children’s TV programs, whose results revealed that there were even few older characters on the Japanese shows: 4 per cent of all speaking roles, as compared to 9 per cent for the U.S. The Japanese characters also remained on screen for only one-third the time that the American characters did. And only 2 per cent of the Japanese figures were women.

This is a disconcerting shift in emphasis in a nation once regarded as a model for care and veneration of its elders. The most rapidly aging nation in the world, and the one with the highest life expectancy, Japan by the year 2,000, according to government statistics, will have a population with 21 per cent of its members 65 or older -- and the nation generally considers old age to begin at 55, when mandatory retirement usually occurs. In an August 7, 1986, Chicago Tribune article, Ronald E. Yates quotes Tsuneo Iida, a professor at Nagoya University: "While much of the world still thinks Japan is a society where the children look after their elderly parents, that simply is no longer the case." Yates writes that according to a recent survey conducted by the Japan Institute of Life Insurance, only one in four Japanese between 55 and 64 felt that children should be financially responsible for aging parents. These respondents have accepted an attitude that apparently originates with the nation’s young adults. It was expressed poignantly by a 76-year-old former gardener whom Yates interviewed in his tiny Tokyo apartment, shared with another elderly man: "I don’t like this new Japan -- it is a lonely, cold place. . . . Everything is electronic, nothing is human. Even my two daughters are more concerned with their kitchen appliances than with their father."

In the past five years, in a reversal of previous practices, the number of elderly Japanese citizens living by themselves has increased by a startling 30 per cent. And in this wealthy, sophisticated nation, hundreds of older men and women now spend their nights in Tokyo’s railroad stations or street corridors, curled up in cardboard boxes -- just as they do in New York or cities in other nations. The elderly are simply disappearing from the Japanese national consciousness -- just as they are essentially absent from its media. This is a distressing development externally as well as internally, especially for those other countries that have looked to Japan for attitudinal models.

The situation is not as bad with print media as it is with television. This state of affairs can be only partially encouraging, however, for the increasing worldwide popularity of TV has been accompanied by a steady decrease in reading (and in nations where the literacy rate is low, television can have an instant impact on people who have never read a newspaper or magazine) At any rate, recent research has concluded that of all media, newspapers do the best job of presenting a satisfactory image of aging. For example, M. Bucholz and J. E. Bynum (Gerontologist, vol. 22, 1982) studied 2,000 feature stories in both a major influential paper, the New York Times, and a small state paper, the Oklahoman. In both cases, there were few negative or inaccurate stories, with both papers, especially the Times, portraying the elderly mostly in active roles. (What these authors did find lacking was information of benefit specifically to the elderly, on such topics as health care, retirement and crime. But recently, both public television and special-interest magazines have been attempting to remedy this situation.)

Magazines, too, have done a better job of dealing with aging than has TV. In addition to a steady increase, internationally, in special-interest publications written for the elderly, their image in other types of publications is both more present and more positive than that on television. For example, in recent years Newsweek has published four excellent and comprehensive feature sections dealing with aging both in the U.S. and elsewhere. For the most part, the way in which the articles’ subjects have been described has been quite positive. In fact, however, this situation introduces another problem, to which those concerned have given less thought than they have to negative images of the elderly. That is, how often do older people really want to see themselves represented by the exceptions -- those elders who "look younger" or who are "exceptionally active for their age" or who have just won a marathon or a swim meet?

On the one hand, elderly people, like those of other ages, enjoy the stimulation that a role model can provide, especially if that model has overcome some impediment or accomplished some particularly ambitious goal. But the appearance of only such individuals can become oppressive for the target group. For example, the omnipresence of extremely thin fashion models in American magazine ads gave rise to a demand for "large size" models: frankly heavy women for whom there are now special lines of designer fashions (though it is worth noting that this trend has not extended to men’s clothing ads -- nor has it shown up on television). Similarly, the "average" elderly person sometimes wants to be represented in the media by just another average person.

A U.S. study by the National Commission on Working Women has concluded that in the case of a few programs at least, TV has recently been just as guilty in portraying an artificially positive image of aging as it has always been in the other direction. In referring to characters from such programs as "Dynasty" and "Falcon Crest," the study’s authors agree that "if painting a rosy picture is a crime, TV is guilty when it comes to older women. Never has life been so good for females over 50. They are healthy, attractive, affluent and available for romance." Indeed, "prime-time women are unrealistically upscale": 26 per cent are millionaires, 68 per cent are middle class and only 5 per cent are working class. In reality, only 0.2 per cent of all American women over 50 have annual incomes above $75,000; almost 40 per cent survive on less than $5,000 per year. The study also suggested that, while men appear more often as TV characters, their depiction is equally unrealistic (Clarence Petersen, Chicago Tribune, September 14, 1986, sect. 2, p. 1). (One partial exception to the commission’s study results may be the popular program "Golden Girls," in which the major characters are all women -- who are generally portrayed with less egregious exaggeration than some other shows’ characters.)

But even when intentions are good, results may sometimes be unexpectedly off the mark. For example, in its November 1982 feature on "Living Longer, Living Better, Newsweek notes that "the wisdom of the elders is more often honored than consulted, and the patronizing compliments they are paid can betray a subtle bias. ‘I used to say "Thank you" when people said I had a young mind,"’ recalls interviewee Daisy Grunau in the Newsweek article. "Later, I realized what an insult that is. Do my 50 years of experience mean nothing? That sort of ageist slur is rooted in the pejoratives of everyday language, where the old are also ‘spry,’ ‘crusty,’ ‘well preserved."’ And yet, on the magazine’s cover, illustrating this same feature article, the thin, lithe and extremely attractive woman shown exercising in a leotard is scarcely typical, and is the sort likely to be complimented as exceedingly "spry." Indeed, the subhead next to the photograph reads: "Growing Old Without Thinking Old’ ‘ -- exactly what Daisy Grunau complained of in pointing to standards of youth as those by which we measure all behavior and appearance. Surely an unplanned blunder on Newsweek’s part, but a blunder nonetheless (perhaps worse in the long run exactly because it was unconscious and indicates not deliberate discrimination but a naive lack of sensitivity) A balance of exceptional model elders with equal numbers of average everyday folk would provide a more accurate picture of the aging as they really are, with their very human combinations of merits and faults.

It is highly ironic that most media are not more sensitive to the images of aging that they portray, for the elderly are among the greatest users of all media forms. According to Heisel, from middle age on, media consumption increases with age. For example, newspaper reading actually reaches a peak at age 65 (then drops quickly, presumably due to problems with eyesight) ; the same is true of magazine reading. Listening to the radio is also popular with the elderly, especially for news and weather, though its use, too, declines later, due to hearing difficulties. Where television is available, it is the preferred medium, partly because it can be both heard and seen, thus allowing the viewer to compensate for some impairments. Television viewing, reports Heisel, increases consistently from around 40 years of age until well into the 80s. In the U.S., people over 60 view more television than do members of any other age group, including children; older people, various researchers have shown, list television viewing as their favorite leisuretime activity. One study in a retirement community, where the median age was 72, indicated that residents watched television an average of six hours a day; this statistic compared with two hours of radio listening, 45 minutes of newspaper reading, one-half hour of magazine reading and a few minutes of book reading.

As Heisel points out, the media, especially television, provide companionship to the elderly, particularly those living alone or simply feeling lonely as a result of old age’s inevitable losses. Such individuals, along with those physically unable to leave their residences, depend on the media as their lifeline to the world. In the best of circumstances, TV, radio and reading material can even provide a focus for social -activity; it is not uncommon to see a group of nursing-home residents watching a TV program together and then discussing it. One elderly woman living in an institution where there was no communal TV set reported feeling highly pleased that she had one in her private room and could invite friends in to watch a program. Though print media serve fewer such functions, they, too, may be used in a variety of ways that do not necessarily isolate an individual. For quite some time I taught a public-affairs course in a nursing home; its subject matter was the daily or Sunday newspaper. Because many of the residents had lost part or all of their eyesight, I read articles or features to them, which the group then analyzed.

What with all the media interest the elderly demonstrate, it is doubly cruel that the images they see of themselves therein are so frequently distorted. This fact itself can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, for people often act in the ways they are expected to. Their own self-images tend to conform to the images they see portrayed, thus setting up a vicious circle that seems well-nigh impenetrable.

Of course, the problems the elderly face with regard to their media portrayal are part and parcel of an entire fabric of societal attitudes, preferences, wishes and fears. Birth, aging and death are the only experiences shared by all human beings. And in some ways it is easier to dramatize some rare, grim disease in a TV story than it is to depict the relative banalities of old age. The story of the unusual illness will be watched with fascination and a sense of relief by those who do not have it -- and with a certain fascination and sense of exclusive identity by those who do. The more common an experience, the less interesting it is likely to be to the media. Add to this the fact that society, particularly in the West, fears aging and death -- and the conditions weighing against their realistic portrayal become overwhelming.

In addition to the many constructive roles the church plays vis-à-vis the elderly, it could help very specifically in this context, and yet it often does not -- for many of the same reasons that block others from doing so. In the words of theologian Joseph Sittler, whose recent work has focused on aging:

. . . what might be the role of religious institutions in this era of extended life? How are the churches to address the many problems that accompany that extension? Many people could tell you the obvious things: the provision of special care, the preparation of the church building for access, the sensitization of the pastor to the increasing numbers of the aging. All of these efforts are obvious and good. The less obvious but very important issue is our need to start talking about death earlier in life. It seems to me that the church has been simply supine before the mores of Western culture, according to which it is indecent to talk about death in polite society P ‘Theological Perspectives on Aging," Human Values Institute Conference, May 12-14, 1986; published in Second Opinion: A Journal of Health, Faith, and Ethics, November 1986].

Sittler argues that the church is not as active as it should be in addressing the nonmaterial needs of the elderly, in this case the losses of age and the inevitability of death -- the same issues from which the media also shy away.

The problems that contribute to unrealistic images of aging must be addressed at both the personal and the systemic levels; healthy old age and its proper representation in society are a matter of public policy as well as of individual behavior. In the U.S. and Western Europe, both levels have been targeted for attention, though most large-scale efforts until rather recently were directed toward the practical concerns of adequate food, housing and health care. In the past 15 years or so, more energy has been channeled toward the "quality of life" issues that contribute substantially to image and to other needs that are less physical than they are mental, emotional or spiritual. But though a great deal of effort has been poured into such attempts they continue to face a variety of obstacles.

For example, the American Association of Retired Persons is the U.S.’s largest support group on behalf of the elderly; it currently has a membership of some 24 million. And yet AARP has its own image problem. To many, it is basically a middle-class organization catering to those who want to take advantage of its insurance policies or its vacation discounts; they do not know of its legal and lobbying work on behalf of legislation to benefit the elderly of all economic levels. Nor are large numbers (including many of its own members) fully aware of the organization’s innovative activities that address image and other nontangibles as part of their focus. One such project is a "worker equity" program that attempts, as one of its goals, to eradicate from employers’ minds the common negative stereotypes of older employees (they are stubborn, lazy, have less energy, do not adapt to new technologies) Another unit of the organizations the Interreligious Liaison Office, is also involved with the non-material aspects of aging. One current example is the unit’s minority training program, in which 13 minority persons have received preparation to represent the interests of their particular minority group within their religious denomination. A second such project is the promotion of opportunities for ministries by older persons within various denominations.

Additional U.S. organizations have also focused on image and other nonphysical needs. For instance, the primary goal of the National Interfaith Coalition on Aging is the promotion of spiritual well-being for the elderly. Composed of organizational and individual members of the Catholic. Protestant, Jewish and Orthodox communions, NICA is involved in a variety of projects that influence society’s image of aging. A case in point is its GIST (Gerontology In Seminary Training) program, which provides teaching resources for seminarians who will one day be pastors to the elderly in their congregations, and who must understand their special needs and circumstances.

Despite these and other labors, there remains a significant gap in the knowledge which most professionals, including clergy, have about the aging process, particularly its emotional components. Even many physicians are relatively uninformed; and, surprisingly, psychiatrists and other mental health specialists seem particularly limited where the elderly are concerned, despite the fact that large numbers of older people experience depression and other emotional stresses. The development of geriatric psychiatry is very recent, and though there are now several highly respected training centers for its dissemination, the number of practitioners in the field is still extremely small (and may remain so, according to one expert, because most therapists find it more challenging and exciting to work with younger clients and because they themselves may fear the aging process).

It is certain that OPIAA, whose focus has always been international, will persist in its commitment to improve all aspects of the aging process in the countries where it operates. One of the most active participants at the 1982 UN Assembly on Aging, OPIAA has dealt seriously with the set of goals and guidelines produced by that first-of-its-kind event. The recent meeting in Madrid was one example of the Catholic group’s continuing creative efforts; one hopes that the number of such internationally focused events will increase. The world is moving rapidly toward the new century and its dramatic growth in the population of elderly people. Their -- our -- quality of life will depend on actions and attitudes formulated now.