Like all forms of prejudice, ageism influences the popular image of a group of people in a negative way that allows them to be categorized as less than human. Discriminatory cartoons, films, and television shows categorizing old people as lonely, confused, and unattractive perpetuate the myth that growing old is something to dread. Such myths, according to psychiatrist Robert Butler, reflect a profound prejudice against the elderly that goes beyond a classic fear of old age to “unreasonable fear and/or hatred of old people.”
In most instances elderly characters are depicted as physically unattractive or infirm, with wrinkled skin, failing eyesight, and poor hearing. In the Robert Inman novel Old Dogs and Children (1991), a girl attends a party with her mother, where she observes some “frightfully old” women—one of them with dark liver spots on her arms, who is hard of hearing, cups her hand behind her ear, and speaks in a loud voice. Another woman, who has dark facial hair on her upper lip, is constantly out of breath. An elderly servant is described as “a gnarled old prune.” Such characterizations are all too common.
With so many negative images, the dread of old age has become ingrained to the point that literature often seeks to avoid it by resorting to a fountain of youth theme. In such stories, old people relive their youth. This technique, depicted in the film Cocoon (1985), was also used by Nathaniel Hawthorne in the story “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” first published in 1837. A group of characters described as “three old, withered grandshires . . . contending for the skinny ugliness of a shriveled grandam” suffer the illusion that they are returned to youthful vigor after they drink water provided by the mysterious doctor.
In addition, elderly characters are often described as confused and disoriented. Twentieth century author Katherine Anne Porter, in her short story “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” describes...
Ageism not only influences the popular image of the elderly, but also affects the self-view of older people, who may adopt the negative definitions of themselves based on the perceptions of others. In one survey, half the people over sixty-five questioned accepted negative images of the elderly, shown on television, as accurate.