The Image of Age in America

By Kleyman, Paul | Aging Today, May/June 2006 | Go to article overview
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The Image of Age in America

Kleyman, Paul, Aging Today

"Madonna is not the only one that can reinvent herself," declared Lupe Ontiveros, 2005 Emmy nominee for her role as Juanita Sous, Eva Longoria's strong-willed mother-in-law on ABC-TV'S Desperate Housewives. "I was a social worker in East Los Angeles for 18 years, and I simultaneously developed a film career while I was going to do field visits and home visits," she added. "You'd be surprised how many people are changing professions and making choices that say you are alive at this stage of your life."

Ontiveros spoke on "The Image of Age: The Shape of things to Come," the theme of the opening general session at the 2006 Joint Conference of the National Council on Aging and American Society on Aging in Anaheim, Calif., March 16-19. She took the stage with moderator Hugh Downs and other panelists in a wide-ranging discussion of age, ageism and emerging models of longevity during the plenary and in a following press conference. The opening session was sponsored by AARP.


Ontiveros, who won increasingly meaningful roles in such films as Selena and As Good As It Gets, discussed the barriers she had to overcome. "I'm a woman of brittle age and I'm a Latina. Those are the three discriminatory attitudes, mentalities that still guide Hollywood today." She credited her role model. Golden Girl actress Bea Arthur, with showing that older women "have a heart, we're sexy and we can still just about do anything."

Downs, the former host of ABC's 20/20, commented, "I would like to live long enough to find myself in a society that could point to me and say, 'There is an old man,' and I'd know I've been complimented. There are cultures in the world that do that."

"What I'd like to see someday," said William H.Thomas, founderof the Eden Alternative to nursing homes, "is that we will look at adults and see in them the makings of future elders, that they will ultimately, if we play our cards right, become the elders our society needs to take on the real social justice questions and issues."

Thomas, a physician and the author of What Are Old People For? How Elders Will Save the World (Acton, Mass.: VanderWyk & Burnham, 2004), ascribed the negative image of age in the United States to "the narrative of decline that is embedded in our culture, the idea that to understand aging is simply to understand decline." He noted that those with fading abilities and fortunes in America have damaged social and political status. He called for creating a new developmental narrative that recognizes the complexity of aging. "Some piece of it involves decline, it's true, but we can give meaning to that decline at the same time we explore some of these new avenues of development we are blind to."


One consequence of today's erroneous equation of age with diminishment, he said, is the looming shortage of healthcare practitioners for older people. "In the United States, the number of geriatricians specializing in the care of older people is going down, not up." Medical schools will continue to have difficulty recruiting students into programs explicitly about aging, he said, until American culture writes "a new script for old age in the 21 st century."

Thomas went on, "We need to be able to imagine a society that is enriched by the growing numbers of older people," he said. But he warned that until American culture tells that story, those who hope for a more enlightened view will be able to do little more than complain about the negative image promulgated by Hollywood and Madison Avenue.

A key change, according to psychologist Laura Carstensen, director of Stanford University's Center on Longevity and Life-Span Development, would replace the current framework of aging with a lifespan perspective that accepts the gains and losses accompanying any stage of human development. "If you want someone to be able to learn a new language, the age you want is two," she observed.

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