Ageism Hits Us Harder

I’ve often wondered why obituary photos so often show the deceased when they were younger, sometimes much younger. After all, we’re hardly fooled by them–the obits almost always publish how old the person was when he or she died. I don’t think the practice is that unusual, but I didn’t realize that it was increasing.

A new study conducted by Keith Anderson and Jina Han of the Ohio State University shows that, judging from the ages depicted in obituary photographs, Americans may be more sensitive about aging that they used to be. In 1967 only about 17% of the photographs were “age-inappropriate” (taken at least 15 years before the person’s death). By 1997 that figure had increased to 36%.

It makes sense that family members want their loved ones to be remembered the way they looked at their best. But the question still remains: why do they feel that way? The researchers suggest that there may be a deeper reason why we tend to use youthful portraits: a growing discomfort with the whole business of aging. What especially interested me, though, was their finding that women were more than twice as likely to be represented by age-inaccurate photos than men were.

“Aging is a double whammy for women, who get hit with more ageism and sexism,” Anderson said.

I was dismayed at the findings. I’m 57 and just starting to get used to the idea that I’m aging (it really does happen, folks!). But it’s still a shock to me when I suddenly catch sight of myself in a mirror or look at an unflattering photograph. But I’m just beginning to look old (IMHO). My skin is thinner on my hands and around my eyes. I have the lines that prove that I’ve done my fair share of smiling, frowning and squinting I have the signs of skin damage all over my body. I can live with it pretty well for now. But how will I feel in another ten years when there’s no denying that I’m elderly? (I hate that word.)

I don’t completely agree that women get hit harder with ageism than men do. From my observation, it’s only a small majority of men and women who grow old gracefully. Most of us, male and female, tend to look our age. And as I wrote, after a certain age no one can hide the fact that he or she is getting older. But I do think that men and women are valued differently as they age. A 60-year-old man is still considered vital and experienced, whereas a 60-year-old woman is thought of as matronly and hopelessly out-of-date.

That doesn’t mean that older women aren’t doing important and exciting things. But it’s hard for a woman who starts late (really late) to get an education or enter the job market. So in that sense, yes, women are hit harder by ageism, because it’s still relatively rare for a man to delay going to school or shaping a career until after his children are grown.

This means that it is more likely to be mothers who are discriminated against in their later years, especially if they were SAHMs (stay-at-home moms) for three-quarters of their adult lives. And ageism becomes particularly damaging when it is coupled with sexism.

It’s also obvious that the baby boomers are swelling the ranks of those who suffer from age discrimination. And we’re not happy about it. So what are we going to do to stop it?

For more details about the above study, click here.

Post Script: I just read in Time magazine about a Spanish woman who started a blog when she was 95 years old. Before she died recently at the age of 97, her blog had received more than 1.5 million visitors from around the world. In one of her last blog entries she wrote that communicating with others “wakes up the brain.” Bravo! To a life well-lived!