Medical and Social Aspects
Key Legal Issues
Role and Responses
Medical and Social Aspects
"Ageism" is a term used to describe stereotyping of and discrimination against persons based on their age. In American society, the term refers most commonly to negative attitudes about aging and the elderly. Media and marketing have been criticized for their promotion of a culture of youth and their unfavorable depiction of aging and the elderly. Studies have shown that widespread exposure to negative images of the elderly and media messages that marginalize elders can have harmful effects on the mental and physical health of older people. On the other hand, a recent study of happiness in the United States shows that aging tends to be associated with increased levels of happiness.
The potential for social isolation is another significant concern related to aging. Life course events such as retirement and the death of a spouse can reduce social connections, while physical impairments and reduced mobility can present barriers to social interaction as well as access to information and resources. These conditions can increase the vulnerability of older persons to abuse, neglect, and financial exploitation. Social integration and support networks therefore are considered to be critical to the health and well-being of older persons.
Past theories held that social isolation is an inevitable aspect of aging, which painted a bleak view of older age. This concept was challenged by newer theories and research indicating that older adults tend to maintain their accustomed social roles and activities as they age and that they can be resilient to the impact of later life transitions such as retirement and bereavement. A recent study examined social integration from the perspective of social networks (The Social Connectedness of Older Adults: A National Profile, originally published in the American Sociological Review, 2008; 73 (2), 185-203). The researchers found that, although the size and closeness of social networks may decline with age, the frequency of higher quality social contacts may increase as older adults have more time for community involvement (e.g., religious participation and volunteering).
Several demographic trends point to the potential for diminished family support networks for older persons. Increases in the divorce rate, a decline in the birth rate, and geographic mobility may lead to lower social connection and higher levels of social isolation. As fewer family members are available or capable of caring for elderly relatives, additional pressures are likely to be placed on social service agencies to provide some level of assistance. Bringing social, religious and civic institutions into a coordinated community response to elder abuse may help prevent social isolation of older adults, mitigate the negative impact of media portrayals of elders, and reduce their vulnerability to abuse, neglect and exploitation.