Unlearning the stereotypes
BY JEAN M. BUZAN
The basis of all my teaching and writing is to explode many of the myths of aging and thus free older people to fulfill their potential and enjoy their lives to the maximum possible. And this is NOT possible if they are inhibited and frustrated by the acceptance of untrue stereotypes which become self-fulfilling prophesies.
'Stereotype' is defined in one dictionary, in the sense we are using it, as " A person possessing or believed to possess (my italics) characteristics or qualities that typify a particular group". So, if we stereotype a person by the term 'old age' we pre-judge that person by the characteristics and qualities that we believe older people possess.
One of the interesting things I realized when studying stereotyping was that, so far as I or anyone else I have asked can see, whenever one stereotypes a person they always belong to a group to which the stereotype will never belong. But the reverse is true when stereotyping according to old age, as this is a group to which most people will eventually qualify for membership!
One of the phrases which I am constantly striving to have eliminated from our daily language is the seemingly innocuous term, "the elderly". It is constantly used when referring to groups of older adults. But think of the contexts in which it is used; it is usually lumped in with "the poor " and/or "the sick", marginalised and disadvantaged people. If we are described as, and considered marginal, then we will be treated, and we will see ourselves, that way.
After some years of proselytizing about the use of this word "elderly" I looked it up in the dictionary. To my surprise and delight I found it is not a noun but an adverb! So the phrase "the elderly" is incorrect anyway. Later, a letter to an editor brought up the same issue with regard to the word "disabled". The writer pointed out "the word 'disabled' should not be used as a noun, hence the inclusion of the word 'person' after the word 'disabled'." This letter gave me insight into the reason why the incorrect phrases are so belittling. For example, if you had never seen me but had been told I was one of "the elderly", whatever description of that group came into your head (based on your learning, experience, etc.) would sub-consciously be applied to me, even though it might be nothing like me at all. If, however, I was described as an 'older woman', the second word automatically becomes the noun - what I am -and 'older' is just one of many hundreds of adjectives that could be used to describe me. Some may be complimentary, some not, but altogether they create a complete picture. In the same way using 'disabled' as a noun creates an image of a person with only that characteristic.