In the United States, 18.5% of the population is over the age of 60 (U.S. Census, 2010). I live in a county that has a higher percentage of senior citizens, 22% (U.S. Census, 2010). In addition to my older family members, I have had the opportunity to work with our county's senior population in varying capacities. I have worked with them and for them. I have provided services (social support, emergency) to them, advocated for them, and trained and educated them. I have found this population to be engaging, helpful, wise, and quite active.
Society however, has tended to overlook, undervalue, and stereotype the elderly. The stereotype is often based on myths and assumptions. Seniors are often thought of as unproductive, alienated, and ineffectual. Parsons (1993) notes that society views the aged as an "increasing burden on society because they are unproductive, increasingly frail, and vulnerable with their decreasing ability to perform activities of daily living, and frequently poor mobility".
Reality is that the percentage of elderly working has risen substantially since 1994. The U.S. Labor Force Participation Rates reports that 58% of men and 45% of women between the ages of 60-64 are employed. The number of those that are employed full time is also increasing.
Society assumes the elderly have greatly reduced physical or mental capacities that have resulted in the need to live in nursing homes. The fact is only 5.4% of the aged are placed in institutions (nursing homes) due to either physical or emotional reasons (Butler et al. 1998). That leaves 94.6% that are choosing assisted living, living independently in their family home or a downsized apartment, with extended family or joining economic forces with a friend. Regardless of where seniors live, the majority are far from alienated. Those that are not working are caring for their families and volunteering in numerous capacities. I have encountered seniors who are going to other senior's homes to assist with their care. I see seniors volunteering at schools, daycares, hospitals, libraries, and civic service organizations. Some seniors are even continuing their education by taking college classes. Regardless of where they are working and living, or what they are doing, seniors are engaged.
I think it is time to stop regarding seniors citizens in terms of what they no longer do but in terms of what they are now doing. To do otherwise, to perpetuate a negative stereotype of this population is reinforcing ageism. Just like any form of negative stereotyping, it can have an effect on society and the individual. Levy (2002) stated that negative stereotypes are internalized at a young age and reinforced over time. Levy (2002) found that people 50 years and older who had a more positive self-perception of aging lived 7.5 years longer than people with negative self-perceptions about aging. That's incredible. We have the opportunity to contribute to longevity simply by valuing and revering our aging population in the way they should have been all along.
Butler, R. N. (1993). Dispelling ageism: The cross-cutting intervention. Generations, 17(2):75.
Levy, B. R., Slade, M. D., Kunkel, S. R., & Kasl, S. V. (2002). Longevity increased by positive self-perceptions of aging. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(2), 261-261-270. doi:10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1241
Parsons, A. (1993). Attitudes to the elderly. St. Vincent's Nursing Monograph 1993 Selected Works.
Population Reference Bureau. (2006). Retrieved on October 21, 2011 from
United States Census Bureau (2010). Retrieved on October 21, 2011from
United States Census Bureau (2010). Lycoming County. Retrieved on October 21, 2011 from