Evaluate the Individual, Not Their Age

November 15, 2013

Average life expectancy is on the rise. According to the International Longevity Center, we’ve gained roughly 30 additional years of life in the twentieth century. Data from the Social Security Administration shows that a person currently 65-years-old can expect to live until age 84 (men) or 86 (women).

In short, there are a lot more senior citizens today than ever before. As a society, we are staying healthy, living longer and surviving medical complications that would have been impossible to conquer in the past. We are aging, yes. We are getting older, yes. And that is a good thing.

Unfortunately, in today’s media the words “aging” and “older” are not always viewed in a positive light. It is extremely frustrating when older people are portrayed as weak and incapable by the media. We should be celebrating people’s ability to live long and fulfilling lives, but that is not always the case.

Ageism is present in our society and magnified in the media. First defined by gerontologist Robert Butler in 1969, ageism is a term that refers to any kind of discrimination against the elderly, just as people can be discriminated against by gender or race. It is an ugly truth I see all too often.

I recently watched an interview on 60 Minutes that demonstrated this social view. The news program featured Dr. Sanjay Gupta interviewing our former Vice President Dick Cheney. In spite of Cheney’s record, which includes working five terms in the House of Representatives, serving as Secretary of Defense under President George H.W. Bush, and holding the second highest office in the nation for eight years, Dr. Gupta and the 60 Minutes team questioned the Vice President’s ability to perform his duties because of his history of medical conditions and his age.

During the interview Cheney confirmed that he had four heart attacks, three catheterizations, and a bypass surgery, but he defended his mental state. The narrator of the interview at one point stated, “The precariousness of Cheney’s physical health raises questions about his state of mind when he was helping to make decisions, including those about war and peace.”

That statement, along with the tone of the interview, implied that someone with a physical medical condition or an older, aging person was unfit as an individual to make decisions. There was no discussion of his ability to make tough judgments due to his age and experience. Rather, there was the insinuation that an aging person is “not right” mentally and is not capable of filling a high profile role.

The overall tone of the piece left me angry. While age does affect a person, it does not mean, by itself, that he or she is incapable of doing his or her job, making decisions and acting intelligently. A person may operate differently as physical changes occur naturally. However, as one ages they also can grow mentally. The older a person is the more they have seen and experienced. That knowledge could actually make someone more capable, not less, but we rarely hear that side.

I think the media needs to stop grouping all 65+ individuals into a single, frail group. People are still individuals, no matter what their age is. Mental state and capability is not determined by age, but rather by the individual.

As we improve medical care, develop new treatments and learn more about healthy lifestyles, our society will continue to grow older. With adversity comes resolve, and with age comes wisdom. People need to begin to realize that age alone does not define ability.