Aging in Society: Selected Reviews of Recent Research

By Matilda White Riley; Beth B. Hess et al. | Go to book overview

12
Beyond Ageism: Postponing the Onset of Disability1

Matilda White Riley Kathleen Bond National Institute on Aging

Ageism, a term coined by Robert N. Butler, refers to the stereotyping of people on the basis of age. One important dimension of ageism identifies old age with disability. Many old people do suffer from various disabilities -- physiological, psychological, and social-but to equate old age with disability is to be guilty of ageism.

Recent research has demolished three major ingredients of ageism. With reasonable success, it has demonstrated that old age disabilities are not 1) universal, 2) necessarily irreversible, or 3) determined solely by biological processes, apart from social and psychological processes. It is time to shift our primary research concern from dispelling false stereotypes about the inevitability of all old age disabilities to understanding those disabilities which are currently widespread and preventing them wherever possible. Looking to the future, we must go beyond ageism. We must build on our knowledge of what is not true to gain new knowledge that can be used to prevent, or reverse, the current disabilities of old age. To put this goal into a single phrase, we need to learn how to compress the time between disability and death, to learn how to postpone all kinds of disability up to the end of the human lifespan.

In pursuing this goal, we recognize that scientific demonstration alone cannot dispel public misunderstandings; nor do we propose to substitute a fresh set of overly optimistic false stereotypes for the pessimistic old ones that research has exorcised.

____________________
1
For ideas and criticisms on successive drafts of this paper, the authors express appreciation to: Ronald P. Abeles, Beth B. Hess, Leonard F. Jakubczak, John W. Riley, Jr., Richard L. Sprott, and Richard Suzman. For editorial assistance, they are indebted to Marian Emr of NIA.

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