"I'm Having A 'Senior Moment' "- Recognising How We Self Stereotype When It Comes To Aging

Author: Louise Pendry 

Following on from her fascinating piece on how sisterhood can help with ageing, university lecturer in Psychology (and The Bias Cut model!) Louise Pendry has written another deeply insightful article, this time addressing how we self-stereotype when it comes to age. Open, personal and honest, this piece is well worth a read. Enjoy! 

 “I’m having a ‘senior moment,’” “I’m not the woman I was” and other ways we tell ourselves that we are getting old and it sucks (when maybe it doesn’t)

In a previous post I talked about how the online support of women in a similar phase of life had empowered me to embrace ageing offline too. And most of the time, that is precisely how I feel. I’m genuinely enjoying this phase of my life. There’s an awful lot about growing older to like, it turns out. But recently, I hit a roadblock to my progress here, and that roadblock is me, or more precisely, how I sometimes think about me. That’s what I want to share with you today.

As a psychology lecturer, I often teach my students about stereotyping. I’ve been doing this for some time now, and I’ve read and researched a lot in this area, looking at many different kinds of stereotypes. When it comes to age stereotyping, I’m aware that most people view growing old in a negative light. I know how damaging ageist labels can be. I hope that in most respects all these years spent absorbing all of this academic and societal “stuff” has rubbed off on me in a good way and has made me reflect on how important it is to challenge these views. I think, though, that there’s been a bias in my reading. On the whole I focus on how bad it is to stereotype OTHER PEOPLE. There is another whole literature on the issue of what happens when we stereotype OURSELVES. I’m aware of this research, but it’s not been my primary focus.

"Older people might stereotype themselves in terms of age. We call this 'internalised ageism'"

Lately, as my research interests have shifted slightly, I’ve been reading even more about stereotyping as it relates specifically to age and this has fed into some of my teaching too. So, to illustrate, this year I’ve introduced a session on how the language we use to describe elderly people can perpetuate negative age stereotypes. Again, I had mostly intended to focus on how we stereotype OTHER (older) people. However, I did at the last minute include an article that shifted the focus to how older people might stereotype THEMSELVES in terms of age. We can call this “internalised ageism”. Now one method I like to employ in teaching is to start each class with concrete examples of the phenomenon I want to tell my students about to make it real and relevant. This is easy when it comes to stereotyping other groups, I’m never short of ideas (e.g., black males shot in error by police in North America, sexist remarks about women based on clothing/appearance). But this SELF-stereotyping angle was not one I’d given too much thought. Sure I could talk about how old people do talk about their “best years being behind them”, being “over the hill” and so on, but it all felt a bit abstract really. I wanted something more vivid. Little did I realise that I’d do something – actually in the class itself - that would provide my students with an ideal real-life example right in front of them.

Here’s what happened. It was the week before the planned session on age stereotyping. Part of the weekly seminar involves students giving presentations on research articles to the rest of the group and this is my cue to sit down and make notes on their efforts. The room layout was rather cramped and the desk arrangements necessitated me clambering (mostly tripping) around the AV equipment and computer cables and then climbing inelegantly over a desk to reach an available seat. All of this was achieved with a plenty of stumbling and huffing and puffing on my part. Trying to make light of it, I smiled at my students and said “Ha! I’m not the woman I was!” Cue much laughing. At the end of the session, a student approached me about her presentation the following week, ironically on the very article I mentioned above. “You know, you just demonstrated what that article called ‘internalised ageism’,” she said. And she was right. I had used a common negative stereotype about ageing (declining physical fitness) to explain my behaviour and it was more than likely not justified. Actually anyone would have struggled to reach their seat in that classroom, young or old. And I am reasonably fit in any case. If I had to comment at all, maybe I would have been better off saying, “They don’t make it easy, do they?” or something less stereotype laden.

 "A student approached me and said "You know, you just demonstrated what that article called 'internalised ageism'."

Thinking this was hopefully just an aberrant moment on my part, I tried not to worry. But as I started to think more about the language I use about myself, I began to realise this was not an isolated episode after all. I’ve certainly found myself joking about having an unfortunate “senior moment” when I’ve mislaid my glasses and can’t recall where I’ve left them. Where’s the harm in that, you may ask? Just good-natured fun, trying to laugh off an embarrassing episode? We all do it, right? But really, what I’m doing here when I make this kind of humorous self-deprecating remark is classifying a behaviour I’ve performed as proof that my memory’s going and furthermore, highlighting and confirming it’s because of a negative and enduring part of the elderly stereotype: forgetful. I’ve pigeonholed myself, written myself off. Now this memory lapse may indeed be a sign of impending dementia but it’s more likely to simply signify that my life is way too busy lately, with so many competing demands on my attention, and that it could happen to anyone AT ANY AGE if they had as much going on as I often do. Or it could be down to menopausal brain fog (annoying but not necessarily long-lasting). Minor deteriorations in cognitive function can certainly happen as we age, but just because I’m over fifty doesn’t mean every slight memory lapse I have is a sign of serious and permanent cognitive decline. (Confession: I actually saw the doctor after starting to think my memory lapses were indicative of early-onset Alzheimer’s and was given a screening test which revealed an impressive near perfect memory score of 98%. So, even less reason to worry just yet).

Perhaps you think I’m over-reacting. I’m always wary about speaking out on issues that make people automatically scream, “It’s political correctness gone mad! Good grief, it’s only a joke, lighten up, where’s your sense of humour?” A cursory glance at the greeting cards section of any store will invariably include dozens that poke fun at the recipient’s age. #seniormoment is everywhere (that’s a topic for another post)! Now don’t get me wrong, I like a laugh as much as anyone, and indeed, I often use humour as a way of diffusing tension in many situations. But here I think it might be an issue because this kind of self-stereotyping can have important consequences for us. This is because research has shown that when we THINK of old as negative, when we IDENTIFY as old, we can start to FEEL old and may even ACT in a way that confirms negative elderly stereotypes. And that can really be unhelpful to those of us who, at an overt level at least, like to think we are pro-age. It can basically hijack our best efforts to age positively. Actually, it can do even more than that. Let’s look at some examples of this in action.

"Participants [of an experiment] exposed to the negative elderly words performed worse on the memory tests than did those exposed to positive words."

In some classic research by Becca Levy, older participants took part in a study looking at memory. Before they did the memory tests they were exposed to words that included either negative (incompetent, decrepit and diseased) or positive (guidance, sage and accomplished) traits associated with the elderly stereotype. Next, participants did the memory tests. What Levy found was that participants exposed to the negative elderly words performed worse on the memory tests than did those exposed to positive words. Perhaps just as interesting was participants’ responses to a question about how well they THOUGHT they’d do on the test. This was posed after they’d been primed with the positive or negative elderly words. Those primed with the positive words actually reported thinking they would do better than did those primed with negative words. What does this mean? Well, translated into everyday life, it could suggest that the unconscious age self-stereotypes we hold and express (“I left my phone in the fridge, I’m having yet another senior moment!”) affect how well we approach and perform associated tasks in future (“My memory is clearly ****ed. How will I ever remember everything on my to-do list today?”). These witty self-effacing asides we make about our occasional mental and physical malfunctions could be sabotaging our more overt attempts to embrace this phase of our lives. We become our own self-fulfilling prophecy.

There’s actually a lot of research on this topic, not just on memory, and it is quite consistent. Levy and others found that:

  • After receiving this kind of age stereotype priming, seniors’ subsequent handwriting samples were judged as more likely to belong to “shaky”, “senile” and “deteriorated” people than were those of seniors in the positive-stereotype priming condition.

  • Negative-stereotype primed seniors appeared to walk more slowly upon leaving the experimental laboratory.

  • These kinds of positive or negative self-stereotypes can influence our will to live in later life, and our physiological function (using the cardiac stress test).

  • People who had more positive views on ageing when assessed in 1975 reported better health subsequently and lived on average 7.5 years longer than those with less positive views when death records were interrogated many years later.

If we possess a mindset that one foot is already teetering on the edge of the grave, then, our thoughts and behaviours can ultimately mirror this mindset: I THINK (elderly) therefore I AM.

Talking about this with a colleague, she turned to me and said “Louise, I’ve got the title for you: THE ENEMY WITHIN!” I think that’s a pretty good analogy. This kind of “old talk” can wreck our best efforts to develop, retain and indeed demonstrate positive images of ageing; the kind of images I like to think I have in abundance. As Levy and colleagues conclude, “With friends like oneself, who needs enemies?”

 "My self-focused ageism bias, it seems, is cloaked in the light-hearted guise of using humour towards myself"

Sometimes it’s easy to think of alternatives that don’t hinge upon mentioning age in a negative way. But sometimes those readily accessible ageist self-stereotypes are the first things that spring to mind. And they are only light hearted jokes. Yet I can’t help feeling, however humorous and innocent my intentions, that I’m unwittingly contributing to a problem here. Every time I use age (even in a humorous way) to explain away a certain humiliating behaviour of mine, I’m saying I buy in to these stereotypic views for myself. And I really hadn’t realised I did this. Admitting that I do, though, is a crucial step in changing my behaviour. My self-focused ageism bias, it seems, is cloaked in the light-hearted guise of using humour (towards myself) that has a pop at negative aspects of getting older. The old adage ‘knowledge is power’ seems apt here. Certainly Levy would argue that educating people about these kinds of effects may play an important part in overcoming them. Now I am more aware, I am going to try to catch myself in the act when I do this, and maybe respond differently.

 

Of course it’s not easy to unlearn biases that have developed over many years. I’ve been exposed to and absorbed a half century of prejudices about ageing. Even though at an overt level I don’t think I hold or express negative attitudes and behaviour towards older people, these linguistic slips of mine betray a more covert process at work that may be hard to undo. But perhaps it is possible to eliminate or at least reduce some stereotype bias. For example, a program of research by Margo Monteith suggests that when we realise that we have violated our usual non-prejudiced standards (such as laughed at an ageist joke), guilt kicks in and sets in motion a process of self-regulation: we reflect upon our actions that bit more carefully. This makes us more aware in future, and if we find ourselves in a similar situation subsequently, warning signals may go off and we might just think before we speak and maybe avoid that jokey ageist remark. This research is more focused on how we stereotype others but maybe we can turn this around and apply it to self-stereotyping, too.

"It's early days yet, but I would say I'm more aware of mine and others tendency to automatically assume our behaviour is linked to a negative aspect of growing older" 

It is possible to give compliments without resorting to the easy and seemingly irresistible lure of a dig at age. We can still find alternative explanations for our own behaviours that might (but just as well might not) be linked to negative age stereotypes; to curb “the enemy within”, to nurture and hold on to more positive views about getting older. If we did, maybe we’d be less likely to prematurely succumb to some of the more negative attributes of getting older ourselves. In some small way, too, we could help dilute these ageist stereotypes just that bit more. I’m certainly going to make an effort to try in future.

It’s early days yet, but I would say I’m more aware of this tendency in myself and others to automatically assume our behaviour is linked to a negative aspect of growing older. I met a friend for coffee last week and we were chatting about her job, and whether she wanted to put herself forward for a new role that would give her more responsibility.

“I just don’t feel I’m mentally up to it any more,” she confessed, “I’m too old.”

Mindful of all I’ve said above, I replied, “If you really don’t fancy it, of course that’s up to you. But if you do feel it’s not for you, are you sure your reasons for not going for it are down to your age? Could it perhaps be other aspects that are at play here? You moved jobs two years ago from one in which you had control over your daily routine to your current one which has you running madly from task to task, at the beck and call of others. In your current role, you feel overwhelmed. That might be colouring your mind set, making you feel you are not up to this other opportunity. It might not be because of your age.”

“Louise,” she replied, “you would never have said that before, you’d just have agreed with me.”

And she’s right, I would have.

I’m not saying there aren’t some downsides to growing older, simply that there may be many explanations for some of the things we do as we grow older that are not irrevocably tied to age. Pausing to reflect on these alternatives might allow us to reconsider and reappraise our achievements so that we can move forward with this phase of our lives in a more positive fashion, be that bit more resilient. Maybe we need to heed Becca Levy’s advice: “…as all humans age, they should be aware of their own implicit negative views of their group and consciously develop an identity with old age and its positive attributes, using these to compensate for the ill effects of automatic ageism.” Reader, I’m on it!

About the Author: 

Louise is a fifty something Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Exeter. Over the past twenty years, she has published articles focusing on online communities, stereotyping and prejudice. She’s delighted to be able to combine her academic background with her long-standing personal interest in and (more recently) her lived experience of women and ageing. Currently she is exploring how online communities can help support women experiencing identity transitions as they grow older, whatever route they take. A passionate believer in women being able to style themselves as they please without fear of ridicule, she has been known to plunder her eighteen year old daughter’s wardrobe looking for style inspiration and loves that her daughter is just as likely to steal stuff of hers. In her job as a lecturer, she’s come across research suggesting that this blurring of the lines between age and clothing may have additional health benefits for older women. She hopes that it may also go some way towards dismantling outdated prescriptive stereotypes about what older women “ought to wear”. Summing up Louise’s style philosophy and outlook on ageing, she says: “I enjoy wearing whatever I like, trashing and distancing myself from those negative prescriptive age stereotypes and confusing the hell out of everyone I meet. For the good of my health and because that is my kind of authentic!”

Comments

  • Posted by Catherine Grace O'Connell on

    I loved this article and I’m a friend of Jacynth. I do a lot to shift the perception of women at midlife and beyond and run a large community. I had my voice silenced at an early age and now at 56 I’ve started 6 businesses in 2 years and recovered naturally from a life threatening illness. The power of language particularly toward myself and expanding my mindset and internal belief system after a lifetime of abuse was key. I have a radio show and would love to connect. Catherine

  • Posted by Claire Martin on

    i have recently “retired” and after an initial wobble am enjoying life without the constraints of a regular job. I have gone back to ballet lessons, am relearning the French language and play tennis. However I do find myself making self-deprecating remarks about my age and am going to make a conscious effort not to in future. I think it is a great time to be the age I am with so many older women doing amazing things.

  • Posted by Jilly Green on

    Louise has perfectly described the paradox of our situation! It’s great that we rethink our attitudes to growing older, share discussion on this website or the Country Wives online magazine, and I’ve read and reread Tricia Cusden’s “Living the Life more Fabulous”. I now buy beautiful age appropriate make-up and have started to shop with The Bias Cut, and it’s all good! But… I didn’t think that much about turning 62, I’m my own person and have my own style of dressing, and used to think of myself as just a bit older and more experienced than most of the people I live among and work with; yet now this pro-age issue is leaving me feeling that I’m part of an older age group, just thinking about age has changed my self image. Just as a recently diagnosed heart murmur, which I may have had all my life, has left me concerned about any breathlessness and suchlike, so I now put many other things down to old age in just the way Louise describes! So, I think it’s good to be aware of our own self-criticism and refuse to be identified by the number of our years, appreciate the many advantages we have; then just get on with life!

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