Ageism: How Unrealistic Portrayals of Aging Affect Senior Health

Caregiver, patient expert

How are older people portrayed in movies and on TV? Are they consistently cranky and the target of jokes or are they realistic in their variations and strengths? Are stereotypical portrayals harmful to their health? Possibly so.

New research from the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, in partnership with Humana, Inc. sheds light on both the expected conclusion that older people, if represented at all in film and on television, are often typecast negatively, but also on the unexpected fact that these portrayals seem to affect the overall health of our aging populations.

HealthCentral interviewed Yolangel Hernandez Suarez, M.D., M.B.A., F.A.C.O.G., from Humana, and Stacy L. Smith, Ph.D., of USC, who are intimately involved with this research in order to discover more about what this study means to our culture at large, by video recording.

Dr. Hernandez Suarez is vice president and chief medical officer for the Care Delivery Organization at Humana, Inc. She has oversight of more than 200 physicians nationwide, who provide care to Humana patients. Her areas of focus include quality and patient safety, integrated health care, and care to special populations.

Dr. Smith is associate professor of the USC Annenberg School. Her research focuses on content patterns pertaining to gender and race on screen in film and TV.

HealthCentral: What is the focus of the study and why has Humana partnered with USC to conduct it?

Dr. Hernandez Suarez: Humana thinks that there’s a relationship between your self-perception and healthy aging, so we have founded this extraordinary partnership with Dr. Stacy Smith and her group of social scientists who also share an interest in the way that film influences people’s self-image.

We’ve looked, at Humana, at characteristics that are associated with healthier aging that include a sense of optimism, resilience, and self-awareness, and we know that when we query seniors who are aging well and have these characteristics, they are far less likely to report unhealthy days over a month, so your self-image and your self-investment in your own health, the way you see yourself in the future, matters.

The way this connects to film is that film is such a powerful influencer in the United States right now. With this partnership that we have with Dr. Smith, we are finding that senior stories are either absent or extraordinarily inauthentic.

HC: Do you think that negative portrayals of aging in the movies and elsewhere affect how younger people view their elders?

Dr. Smith: I think that the mass media plays a role in perpetuating group-based stereotypes whether it’s gender, race-ethnicity, the LGBD community, or individuals who have disabilities, and one of the reasons that we’re conducting this research is to bring ageism into that conversation.

I can speak personally that it has really changed the dynamic in our lab — that we didn’t think about aging as a problem, or a misconception, or a misrepresentation, given all of our other work on social identity groups. But given the research and its findings, it’s clear that the prototype for how storytellers think about characters that are 60 plus is antiquated and inconsistent with what we know about the vibrant and dynamic lives of people in this country in that age bracket.

HC: Do these negative portrayals affect the way seniors view their own aging process?

Dr. YHS: We increasingly think so. Part of the opportunity we have in this novel type of novel research is to ask those very questions and try to quantify the way in which certain mass media can impact health.

We are finding increasingly that health happens to some extent inside the doctor’s office, but much more powerfully happens in the community. It happens in society. It happens in people’s homes. These social determinates of health are taking on significant weight in public health policy and the question is how can we partner with film makers, and other creative people, to tell the types of stories that can promote healthy and authentic aging for all of us?

HC: Have we gotten to a place where we can’t enjoy humor over aging without denigrating the wisdom and life legacy of the elder? How can we balance this problem?

Dr. SLS: I think balance is a good question, but part of the problem with Hollywood in general, and in this case in specific, is when only 9.3 percent of all characters that are seniors in the 2016 films are women and the fact that there are no LGBT characters, which means that 10 percent of the people are underrepresented within this age bandwidth, we’re not really talking about balance, we are talking about a skewed, narrow and almost invisible portrayal, so when we only have a few instances and those are negative, balance is a dream.

I think we need to take steps, first-off, to get them put them on screen and, secondly, to think about the ways that storytelling can reflect the lives of this group. Yes, there needs to be humor, but not humor at the expense, perhaps, of negative health consequences, which research seems to suggest.

HC: Please expand on the real-life implications of ageism among seniors and society as a whole, and the effect that will have on the future.

Dr. YHS: So, I think it’s powerful when you look at film. If there is no presence of seniors — let's start with that — I am a professional person of a certain age and apparently in a couple of years, I don’t exist in the film world. So, the question is, first, how do we put ourselves there, and then what are the ways in which storytellers can tell [their stories] with humor and with other factors? Listen, we’ll age and we’ll be funny, too, but I think that there needs to be ways to get there in a way that does not contribute negatively to the health of the nation.

I think we know that as a country we have an extraordinary opportunity to improve our own health. There is a certain amount that can be done through traditional means, through health care and insurance companies. The question is how do we build the fabric of our society, the type of people we become as we age? How do we help younger people view older people in a way that allows all of us to age with our best health?

Thanks for having us!

HC: Thank you both for your insight into this ongoing discussion about the portrayal of seniors in the media. We appreciate your efforts to enlighten our culture to the importance of ageism as a health threat.

See More Helpful Articles:

Is Our Youth-Obsessed Culture Making You Old Before Your Time?

Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover: Aging Bodies Often House Strong Minds

Predicting Alzheimer’s: Biological Age Overrides Chronological Age


Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver having spent over two decades caring for a total of seven elders. She is a longtime newspaper columnist and the author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories,” as well as a contributor to several additional books on caregiving and dementia. Her websites can be accessed at www.mindingourelders.com . Follow Carol on Twitter @mindingourelder and on Facebook Minding Our Elders.