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Elderly face bias, stereotyping

Greenwich Time, May 25, 2003

When Ruthanne Jaffe Birnbaum complimented the hairdresser who cut her 88-year-old mother's hair, she couldn't believe the response she heard.

" 'I do real people's hair, too,' " Birnbaum recalled the hairdresser telling her. "It hurt me."

Birnbaum, 52, said that is one of many examples of ageism she regularly encounters. The town resident works as a clinical social worker in private practice in town and at Jewish Family Services in Stamford. As someone who sees many elderly clients and has an elderly mother, she said she often sees negative stereotypes about seniors.

Ageism is prejudice or discrimination against or in favor of any age group. Birnbaum said the elderly are often not respected because people are scared of aging.

"They are so fearful this will happen to them that they become less tolerant and less sensible," she said. "People are afraid of age, of getting older, because I think the society is afraid of aging."

Several senior service providers said they believe Greenwich offers more services for the elderly than most communities. But negative stereotypes against the elderly exist here, just like anywhere else, they said.

Sam Deibler, director of the Greenwich Commission on Aging, a resource agency that provides services and advocates on behalf of local seniors, said it is much harder for a senior to get a job because older people are often perceived to be less productive. Older people are the first to get laid off when a company tries to reduce its work force, he said. They are often encouraged to retire instead of seek promotions, he said.

Seniors over the age of 85 were the town's fastest-growing group in the 1990s, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. More than a quarter of all Greenwich households include a person over the age of 65, according to the census.

Deibler, 57, said respect for the elderly has decreased over the years because of changes in family values. Families are more fragmented now, so many young people grow up without close contact with their grandparents or only see them when there is a problem in the family or someone is sick or dying, he said.

Elizabeth Taracka, an 84-year-old town resident, agreed.

"A lot of the parents work now and don't have time," she said. "The whole moral thing is gone to pot."

Deibler used the example of people losing their glasses at different ages. If a 13-year-old kid loses his glasses, he is seen as irresponsible, and a 40-year-old is perceived as being very busy, he said. But when a 70-year-old loses his glasses, others think he is senile, Deibler said.

"There is a value that we place on aging and it's not a good one," he said. "It's cultural and some of it is a product of the values that we learn in our families."

Dr. Stephen Jones, director of Greenwich Hospital's Center for Healthy Aging, said many people misinterpret the meaning of aging.

"I think everyone associates aging with decline, that it's always a loss," he said. "And in some respects it is. That's the nature of life. People lose friends, relatives, they are not as active. But that doesn't mean their lives don't have a meaning. As we get older we can actually improve in other aspects. We become (more) knowledgeable, better read, better educated."

The hospital recently changed the center's name from Geriatric Health and Resource Center because many people had misconceptions about the word "geriatric," Jones said.

Rick Weiner, an acting senior social worker at the Greenwich Department of Social Services, blamed television and other media for creating a lot of the negative stereotypes toward the elderly. Americans are constantly bombarded with ads about how to look younger, he said.

"Somewhere in there is the inherent value that looking younger is better," Weiner, 55, said. "No one has ever asked, 'What's wrong with looking older?' "

Many seniors buy into this media blitz, he said, and start feeling less worthy.

"They become ashamed, they apologize for the way they look, they apologize for their appearance, for the things they can't do any more," Weiner said, adding that younger generations rarely apologize for things they are not able to do.

Seniors are also not seen as a viable economic force because of an assumption that older people all live on fixed incomes, he said. None of the shops on Greenwich Avenue have older-looking mannequins, he said, illustrating the point that this type of stereotype exists even in a town where many seniors are wealthy.

But in other countries, seniors are more recognized for their values, Weiner and Deibler said. Deibler used the example of Asian nations, where younger people greet the elderly by putting their palms together near their forehead, which signifies more respect than greeting someone your age by placing your palms at nose-level. Weiner said that seniors are revered in South Africa because they carried their families' traditions through oral history. In the former Soviet Union, the elderly were respected for everything they had gone through, he said.

"They are revered, they have the experiences, they have a special place in society," he said. "In America, they have a special place, but it's devalued."

But some Greenwich seniors said they feel respected. Josephine Santoro, 81, said people who have a positive attitude are also treated positively.

"I think age comes from attitude and your positive thinking," she said. "You don't look at it as a negative thing."

Still, seniors and senior providers acknowledged there is room for improvement in how seniors are treated. Several said they believe society's attitude toward the elderly will take a positive turn when baby boomers start retiring in 10 years. This will change the nation's political climate, which often dictates societal changes, they said.

Weiner said he hopes people will begin to appreciate the elderly for everything they have to offer, including their knowledge, experiences and values. Seniors also need to realize that their aging looks are not a bad thing, he said.

"What I wish they'd say is, 'I have beautiful silver hair and you see these wrinkles? Let me tell you how I got each of these wrinkles,' '' he said.

Copyright 2002 Global Action on Aging
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