The number of Americans 60 and older is growing, but society still isn't embracing the aging population, geropsychologists say. Whether battling "old geezer" stereotypes or trying to obtain equal standing in the workplace, those who are 60 or older may all too often find themselves the victims of ageism.

In fact, in a survey of 84 people ages 60 and older, nearly 80 percent of respondents reported experiencing ageism--such as other people assuming they had memory or physical impairments due to their age. The 2001 survey by Duke University's Erdman Palmore, PhD, also revealed that the most frequent type of ageism--reported by 58 percent of respondents--was being told a joke that pokes fun at older people. Thirty-one percent reported being ignored or not taken seriously because of their age. The study appeared in The Gerontologist (Vol. 41, No. 5).

And what's worse, ageism also seeps into mental health care. Older patients are often viewed by health professionals as set in their ways and unable to change their behavior, aging experts say. Mental health problems--such as cognitive impairment or psychological disorders caused at least in part by complex pharmacological treatments--often go unrecognized and untreated in this growing demographic, many researchers believe.

The deficit in treatment comes at a time when those over the age of 85 make up the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population. Nearly 35 million Americans are over 65 years old, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, and that number is expected to double by 2030 to 20 percent of the population.

Those numbers come as no surprise to geropsychologists, who--as they mark Older Americans Month this May--continue working to get the word out about the need for better elder care. Their ultimate aim is to expand training and research opportunities in this area and eliminate ageism in all facets of society--from demeaning stereotypes portrayed in the media to the public's personal biases.

The effects of ageism

Not only are negative stereotypes hurtful to older people, but they may even shorten their lives, finds psychologist Becca Levy, PhD, assistant professor of public health at Yale University. In Levy's longitudinal study of 660 people 50 years and older, those with more positive self-perceptions of aging lived 7.5 years longer than those with negative self-perceptions of aging. The study appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 83, No. 2).

On the other hand, people's positive beliefs about and attitudes toward the elderly appear to boost their mental health. Levy has found that older adults exposed to positive stereotypes have significantly better memory and balance, whereas negative self-perceptions contributed to worse memory and feelings of worthlessness.

"Age stereotypes are often internalized at a young age--long before they are even relevant to people," notes Levy, adding that even by the age of four, children are familiar with age stereotypes, which are reinforced over their lifetimes.

Fueling the problem is the media's portrayal of older adults, Levy says. At a Senate hearing last fall, Levy testified before the Special Committee on Aging about the effects of age stereotypes. Doris Roberts, the Emmy-award winning actress in her seventies from the T.V. show "Everybody Loves Raymond," also testified at the hearing.

"My peers and I are portrayed as dependent, helpless, unproductive and demanding rather than deserving," Roberts testified. "In reality, the majority of seniors are self-sufficient, middle-class consumers with more assets than most young people, and the time and talent to offer society."

Indeed, the value that the media and society place on youth might explain the growing number of cosmetic surgeries among older adults, Levy notes. Whether this trend is positive or negative in combating ageism is one of many areas within geropsychology that needs greater research, she says.

What can psychologists do?

Psychologists need to respond to ageism the same way they do when a person is discriminated against because of race or a disability, says Jacqueline Goodchilds, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Goodchilds, on behalf of APA's Committee on Aging (CONA), drafted a resolution against ageism that was approved by APA's Council of Representatives in February 2002. The resolution says that APA is against ageism "in all its forms" and emphasizes APA's commitment to support efforts to eliminate it.

"APA was against racism, sexism and all the other 'isms'--it made sense to be against ageism too," Goodchilds says of the resolution.

Other APA groups are also working to combat ageism through funding, training and federal policies supporting geropsychologists. For example, one APA initiative--through the Graduate Psychology Education (GPE) program--recently received $3 million for geropsychology training this year. The funding will be devoted exclusively to training geropsychologists in mental and behavioral-health services for older adults through APA-accredited programs.

Increasing the number of doctoral-level trained geropsychologists as well as making age-related information more available to researchers, practitioners and students are top objectives for CONA. One of the group's recent efforts is to get more aging content incorporated into all levels of schools' curricula.

"We need to raise the consciousness of the need for aging material," says CONA chair Forrest Scogin, PhD, a University of Alabama psychology professor. "There needs to be a greater awareness of who the older adults are--they are a diverse group. Ageism and stereotypes just don't work."

The workplace also needs psychologists' attention, says Harvey Sterns, PhD, president of APA's Div. 20 (Adult Development and Aging) and director of The University of Akron's Institute for Life-Span Development and Gerontology. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has reported a more than 24 percent increase in the number of age-discrimination complaints filed this year compared with the previous two years. Employees over the age of 40 are often considered "old" and not offered the same training, promotion opportunities and pay as younger colleagues, Sterns says.

Div. 20 is working to counteract such workplace and other age stereotypes by addressing the need for more trained geropsychologists and promoting age-friendly environments for the growth and development of older adults. "There is a long tradition within APA of dealing with these issues, but that doesn't mean they don't have to be revisited with intensity over and over again," Sterns says. "This doesn't go away."

The key, Scogin notes, is educating psychologists and the general population alike about America's growing elderly population. "If we have people--from secondary education to continuing education, to professionals--with a greater awareness of aging as an important component, then that could have an impact on reducing ageism."

Further Reading

For resources on geropsychology, visit www.apa.org/pi/aging/publications.html.

As one of her presidential initiatives, APA President-elect Diane Halpern, PhD, is forming a group to address how psychologists can continue to use their skills and make contributions as they retire. To be added to the new Retiring Psychologists listserv, contact Christine Peterson, Governance Affairs, at cpeterson@apa.org