Ageism and the "E" Word

Posted by:
Susan Rooke
August 1, 2019

So the other Sunday morning Glen and I were watching an episode of North Woods Law. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s one of the reality shows about game wardens on the Animal Planet network, and is set primarily in Maine. (The other is Lone Star Law, which is set, of course, in Texas.) We enjoy watching scofflaws trying to lie and weasel their way out of hunting violations, keeping undersized/oversized/too many fish, boating while intoxicated, illegal camping and all the other things they can do to flout the fish and game regulations. Both shows are entertaining, sometimes shocking and always informative. And kind of frightening. There are some seriously disturbed people on our public lands and waters.

Due to Maine’s dense forests and sparsely populated areas, the game wardens on North Woods Law occasionally have to form search parties for hikers and hunters who get lost in the woods. That’s just what happened in Sunday’s episode. This time the missing person was described as “an elderly man with Parkinson’s.” As well as using the “E” word, the narrator also gave the man’s age in years. I thought his age and the fact that he had Parkinson’s (relevant because if he stayed lost for any length of time he’d miss his seven-times-daily medication) should have been description enough.

Maybe I’m overly sensitive. After all, I do have (yet another) birthday coming up soon. But as Glen and I watched the show while enjoying our Sunday breakfast of spicy elk sausage omelettes, toasted homemade bread and Bloody Marys (also spicy, thanks to vodka I infused with homegrown jalapeños, fresh herbs, lemon peel and black peppercorns), it occurred to me that someday I might get lost in the woods, too. (Probably not in Maine, but you never know.) Somewhere, somehow, I might make it into the local newspapers for all the wrong reasons. And if I did, how would they pigeonhole me? I’m not “elderly”—yet—but nevertheless I’ve seen women years younger than I am described in the news that way. Also as a “grandmother of [X number of grandchildren here],” and a “senior.” That’s fine if it’s in the context of a piece about family or schooling. But it never is. The women in question are always either missing, dead, or they got all feisty and fought off a purse snatcher. These descriptions must be there for a reason, right? What are they intended to make us feel when we read them? Pity? Superiority? Comfortably non-missing/still kicking? Younger?

Personally, I think it’s the writer’s ageism showing, projecting his/her own assumptions about the “elderly” person onto the reader. Try this on for size: Martha Stewart and Harrison Ford are 77 years old—three years older than the missing man with Parkinson’s (whose story had a happy conclusion when he was finally found, by the way). Ann-Margret and Raquel Welch are 78. So is Bob Dylan. Never have I seen any of them described as “elderly.”

What do arbitrary, irrelevant categorizations such as “grandmother,” “senior” and “elderly” really have to do with anything? Well, in this plastic fork, paper napkin, disposable diaper, polystyrene foam to-go box throwaway society, I would propose that they’re the first step toward devaluing people, in order to eventually close the lid on them like moldy leftovers and throw them away. The law enforcement, search dogs and helicopters mobilized for rescue are just postponing the inevitable. People in the limelight seem to get a pass, unless they develop dementia or a debilitating disease, and then they’re fair game for condescending adjectives just like the rest of us.

I’ve had enough of it. Remember Peter Finch’s brilliant scene from the 1976 movie Network? He made this line famous: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

Well, that’s me.

“Intransigent curmudgeon Susan Rooke went missing today near a pecan bottom in Central Texas. She was last seen wearing a purple T-shirt, blue jeans and pink clogs, and standing in the shadow of an enormous elm while sipping a habanero-blackberry margarita (claimed by her husband to ‘have some heat to it’). Authorities advise the public that Rooke is long-winded and easily riled, and if found, should be left the hell alone.”

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12 comments on “Ageism and the "E" Word”

  1. I agree about the pigeonholdimg of age related people!
    Love the description of your "missing"
    And your breakfast sounds delicious!🍹

    1. Thank you, Susan, I was hoping I'd hear from you about this one! I know you and I both feel so strongly about the issue. I'm very glad you liked it (and breakfast was reeeeally good)! 🙂

  2. I want a habanero blackberry margarita! I promise any description I have to give of you to the police will reference your cooking wizardry and fertile imagination without any reference to age!

    1. Hahahahaha! Thank you, Diana, you're the best! I know I can count on you!

      I highly recommend these margaritas. I'll email you the recipe and send you a pic of the blackberry-habanero syrup we order online. Great stuff!

      <3 <3

  3. Ok, the end of this post CRACKED ME UP. Love it! I appreciate your thoughts on the word "elderly" and will try to be more mindful about my use of it in the future. (Note: I have never connected it with you.) However, I think ALL descriptors pigeon-hole us when used by themselves. I once saw a headline that said, "68-Year-Old Grandfather Battered In Road Rage Incident" or something similar. I think the use of "grandfather" in that case was to make us feel more sympathy for him, but it made me wonder what else he is besides a grandfather. Consider the following alternate headlines:
    * 68-Year-Old Lawyer Battered In Road Rage Incident
    * 68-Year-Old Veteran Battered In Road Rage Incident
    * 68-Year-Old Republican Battered In Road Rage Incident
    * 68-Year-Old Swimmer Battered In Road Rage Incident
    What if he was ALL of these things? Do we feel more or less sad for the person based on any of these descriptors? And is that wrong?
    All good fodder for discussion. Thanks for the thought-provoking post! 🙂

    1. Thank you, Carie, and I'm VERY glad to hear you've never connected the "E" word with me! Whew!

      I totally agree with you about the use of descriptors. I think it's some sort of news media shorthand which, in my opinion, does a disservice to all. In these supposedly more enlightened times, it's the people at both ends of the age spectrum who seem to be the ones most often adjective-ized. The younger ones because it's meant to arouse pity and perhaps protective outrage in the reader, and the older because, well . . . for all the reasons I listed and more. Including protective outrage. Because as we advance in age, we start to become as marginalized--and as acted upon and helpless--as the (also helpless) young.

      That's my story and I'm stickin' to it. 😉

  4. I did some interesting research on ageism when studying advertising in undergrad. I do think media descriptors tend to be patronizing and ageist. I'm a firm believer that if one doesn't look old, then one ain't old!

    1. Yes! Not only because people tend to react differently based on how one looks, but also because it can positively (or negatively) affect one's own perception of the self.

  5. Loved your post Susan and you are so right about how 'post teens' are described in the media. I swear that if ever I hit the headlines and am described as a 72 year old pensioner, I will beat the living daylights out of the perpetrator with my Zimmer frame.

    1. Excellent, Maureen! And if that happens, I'll JOIN you!! ('Pensioner?' Ageism must be even worse in the English media than it is here. How very annoying!)

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