Academic journal article Generations

A History of Ageism since 1969

Academic journal article Generations

A History of Ageism since 1969

Article excerpt

The term "ageism" was coined in 1969 by Robert N. Butler, M.D., then a 42-year-old psychiatrist who (among his other civic and age-focused advocacy responsibilities) headed the District of Columbia Advisory Committee on Aging. In partnership with the National Capital Housing Authority (NCHA), Butler used the term "age-ism" during a Washington Post interview conducted by then cub reporter Carl Bernstein. The Post story, "Age and race fears seen in housing opposition," described the apprehension of homeowners in Chevy Chase, Maryland, an affluent Washington, D.C., suburb, who were distressed by the NCHA's decision to turn an apartment complex into public housing (Bernstein, 1969). The project was intended to offer residences for the elderly poor-including African Americans-and was opposed by residents who feared Chevy Chase would never be the same.

"People talk about aging gracefully, which is what they want to do of course. So, naturally, they don't want to look at people who may be palsied, can't eat well . . . who may sit on the curb and clutter up the neighborhood with canes," Butler told Bernstein. "Until our society builds [a] more balanced perspective about age groups, this lends to embittered withdrawal by old people" (Bernstein, 1969).

Ageism: The Greater Prejudice?

In Butler's opinion, long-standing racial prejudices and palpable class biases fueled an animus against age, a stigma that few Americans at the time acknowledged. "In the course of a Washington Post interview, I was asked if this negativism was a function of racism," Butler recalled (Butler, 1989). "In this instance, I thought it more a function of ageism."

Anger about age-driven injustices impelled Butler to engage in political activism on behalf of the old (and the young). As a delegate to the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Butler had witnessed clashes on the Chicago streets between age groups. This mayhem, to his mind, underscored a generation gap fomenting "in the political year 1968 [with] the elements of a counterrevolution by the middle-aged against both the young and the old" (Butler, 1969).

Elaborating upon his insights into ageism in The Gerontologist, he predicted that age bigotry would not soon fade. "Aging is the great sleeper in American life," he declared, noting that ageism permeated programs and resources meant to serve older Americans, such as Medicare, Social Security, and public housing, marginalizing older adults. "Age-ism might parallel (it might be wishful thinking to say replace) racism as the great issue of the next 20 to 30 years," he wrote (Butler, 1969).

Contempt, down through the ages

Butler was not the first to identify a seemingly universal, widespread contempt for old people. Negative attitudes toward age and aging have been, and remain, deeply rooted in global history. Men and women who no longer could contribute to communal survival in Neolithic cultures were cast aside, often leftto die. "Senectus morbidus est" ("Old age is a disease"), the philosopher Seneca (4 BC-AD 65) said.

By associating late life with disease and death, generations down the ages have justified the futility of granting the aged access to care (Achenbaum, 1978; Haber, 1983; Cole, 1992). Ageism is ubiquitous-evident in places as far-flung and with differing cultures as Japan (Gerlock, 2005) and east Africa (Ogonda, 2006)-and embedded in Western culture. The Roman poet Juvenal's Satires mock impotent and priapic septuagenarian satyrs alike; other classical authors disparaged mature women's disfigured grace and beauty. Unflattering imagery, like that in Keats' poem, "Ode to a Nightingale," permeates more modern works (de Beauvoir, 1971; Wyatt-Brown and Rossen, 1993). It is no wonder that post-World War II researchers, sampling respondents' attitudes about old people, reported stereotypically negative responses to age and aging (Barron, 1953; Rosow, 1962; Tuckman and Lorge, 1953).

Robert Butler's achievement was to give meaning to ageism as an affliction. …

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