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The Cultural Perception of Aging

Posted Jan 08 2010 2:35am

category_bug_journal2.gif In a short-lived fit of actually caring about something important, I posted a story yesterday about the Peter G. Peterson-backed plot to kill Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Today, I have fallen back into what Citizen K referred to in a comment on Wednesday as “issue fatigue.” Almost.

Today's post is free of citations, links, statistics, experts and even specific examples. It's just my sense of “what is” in regard to the cultural perception of elders from observation and day-to-day media consumption of several varieties – internet news and advertising, television news and advertising, magazines and, more personally, email solicitations from PR agencies to write about various products and services.

First, some background.

When Time Goes By was barely a glimmer in the back of my mind in 2003, I had been researching aging for about seven or eight years during which time I had amassed a hefty library of books on the subject along with hundreds of pages of popular, medical and research reports. After all that study, the only message I could find was that getting old is entirely about debility, decline and disease. No one had anything good to say about it.

My refusal to believe that was the genesis of this blog which would investigate, think out loud and write about what getting old is “really like.” I would not avoid the normal changes that come with advancing years, but I would also seek to correct to some degree the prevailing zeitgeist in both popular and scholarly circles that there are no positive aspects to aging, that it is all about being unwell.

Back in those years before TGB, the potential consequences of the aging of the gigantic baby boomer generation was confined, mostly, to researchers concerned with statistics and demographics. It had not trickled down yet to advertisers, politicians, self-help gurus, cosmetic surgeons, pharmaceutical manufacturers, book publishers and the popular media. That changed in 2006, when the oldest boomers began turning 60 – a nice round number to take advantage of – revealing a huge, new potential for profit-taking.

And so they all jumped on the boomer bandwagon headlining stories in newspapers, magazines and on television for that generation creating a new market for products and services aimed at them. Internet sites with the word “boomer” in the name multiplied like bunny rabbits although most of them failed. (I can tell you why, but that's for another day.) The marketing to boomers, however, continues to grow.

But a funny thing has happened with that: the boomer-targeted media is still about how awful it is to get old. Superficially, it doesn't always look that way with the bright, shining faces of handsome people in their slim, trim bodies riding bicycles whose only concession to age is (professionally styled) gray hair - lots of it.

With regular shots of Botox, the diligent application of wrinkle cream and the right attitude (available from your web-based elder coach), the marketers tell us, life will continue as it was in our midyears except that we don't have to go to work anymore.

This is supplemented with strings of media stories and YouTube videos about 90-year-olds who run marathons, join dance competitions or climb K2 implying that if we're not outdoing youngsters at their own game, we are not upholding up our sworn duty to maintain the pretense of youth, a pursuit we must continue unto our dying gasp.

Juxtaposed with the fantasy of everlasting youth are hundreds of daily ads and commercials that promise to remedy the ailments of age – arthritis, osteoporosis, gastro-intestinal disturbances, thinning hair, cholesterol, menopause, leaky pipes, etc.

And those PR pitches I mentioned? They are unfailingly about ill health. Just yesterday, I received solicitations to interview experts (many have books to flog) and write about products or services related to glaucoma, back pain, colon cleanses, joint pain and diabetes. Because I write a blog about aging, PR people seem to think it must be exclusively about health issues.

I don't mean to imply that our ailments and conditions are unimportant and should not be addressed. But by engaging with elders on only the twin issues of youth preservation and ill health, aging continues to be defined (if more subtly sometimes) as debility, decline and disease.

Nothing has changed since I started TGB.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Judy Watten: An Unforgettable Conversation

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