Worth a Read: A Guide to Ageism for Media Peeps (and everyone else)


It’s a truism that the way the media represents us colors not just the views that others have of us and how they treat us, but also how we see ourselves. And conversely, the culture’s perception of any group of people – ethnic and religious minorities, women and older people included – affects how the group is depicted in the news media, on television, in film and in advertising.

That’s why a document recently released by the International Longevity Center-USA and Leading Age California is worth a read, whether you’re on the giving or receiving end of ageist media. “Media Takes: On Aging,” a 53-page style guide for journalism, entertainment and advertising, lays out the many subtle ways in which older people are ignored, stereotyped and demeaned on a daily basis and recommends language that is respectful and inclusive.

You might not agree with every one of its recommendations, but as the guide’s introduction states: “Media do oftentimes perpetuate ageism, even if inadvertently. Still, they have the best forums and opportunities to offer redress and to ensure that they are providing accurate depictions of older Americans.” In other words, you can use online commenting features as a way to demand fair representation; when you see the invitation to comment, do so! Most important, the guide is worth reading because it can help us to more clearly parse the media we’re consuming and see the less obvious messages that they carry.

“Many Americans start developing stereotypes about older people during childhood, reinforce them through adulthood, and enter old age with attitudes toward their own age group as unfavorable as younger person’s attitudes.”

Here are some of our takeaways from “Media Takes: On Aging”

On Representation

  • Fewer than two percent of prime-time television characters are age 65 and older, although this group comprises 12.7 percent of the population.
  • Research shows that people who watch large amounts of television believe that older people are in poor shape financially and physically, have no sex lives, and are closed-minded and inefficient.
  • Approximately 70 percent of older men and more than 80 percent of older women seen on television are treated with little if any courtesy, and often with reason – because they’re perceived as “bad.”
  • Twice as many older people portrayed on TV are men, while in reality older women outnumber older men; and television portrays women as “seniors” at a younger age than men, who are more often portrayed as productive professionals.
  • When older guests are booked for late night shows, they are often asked to make silly cameo appearances, rather than sit down and talk.
  • In its representation of older people, much of the media focuses on those who are infirm, ignoring the 80 percent of us who are healthy enough to engage in normal activities.
  • Conversely, now that there’s a growing population of active people 60 and up to market to, we’re seeing a surge in images of “Woofies” – a term coined to describe the Well Off Older Folks whom advertisers are trying to reach. This surge underrepresents less well off older people and affects how as a society we think about programs like social security.

“Representation is, of course, not just a question of numbers or of fidelity to census figures. It is a question of the variety of roles, opportunities, life chances, and images most people see in common from infancy on and as they grow older. Those underrepresented in the world of television are necessarily more stereotyped and limited.” George Gerbner

On Inclusion

  • People aged 45 to 74 are the most loyal audiences of mainstream newspapers, while younger people are more interested in online sources. Newspapers are more interested in attracting young readers, and so are including more images and shorter stories for short, young attention spans – thereby making papers less interesting for older readers.
  • Most advertising is insensitive to older peoples’ vision and hearing limitations, and uses small fonts, not enough color contrast, rapid speech, etc.
  • The media balkanizes content about older people, imagining that only older people will be interested in it. The guides encourages editors and producers to consider stories about age for a multigenerational audience. Why assume that “age” is a turnoff for younger people.
  • In advertising, retirement is usually seen as a time of “playing golf, walking on the beach and sleeping in hammocks.” Advertisers are insensitive to a wish among many retirees to have a wide range of meaningful experiences, including learning experiences. 

On Language

 “Little insults can lead to more negative images of aging and, in fact, even worsen functional health over time.”

  • “Ageing” should be used as a verb – a process we all experience – not as a noun or label; we are “ageing,” we are not “the ageing.”
  • “Elderly” – the bar has shifted for use of this word; most nursing home residents, for example, are now over 80. But whatever the age, the word has some ageist connotations.
  • “Senior” might now be considered ageist. The report quotes Washington post columnist Abigail Trafford, who says the term “The word is laden with stereotypes. It conjures up dentures and discounts, decline and dysfunction.” True? Tell us what you think in the comments box below.
  • Patronizing language – “He is 80 years young.”; “a grandmotherly woman”; “a spry older man” is ageist.
  • “Boomers” refers to a very broad age group with members at various life stages; “baby boomers” is condescending.

The style guide lists obviously ageist words – among them, those below. Fill in the blank at the end by typing it in the comments box below.

  • Ancient
  • Biddy
  • Codger
  • Coot
  • Crone
  • Crotchety old man
  • Dirty old man
  • Fogy
  • Fossil
  • Gaffer
  • Geek
  • Goose
  • Geezer
  • Gone senil
  • Gophers
  • Greedy geezer
  • Hag
  • Little old lady
  • Miserly old man
  • Old fart
  • Old goat
  • One foot in the grave
  • Over the hill
  • Prune
  • Senile old fool
  • Sweet old lady
  • Vegetable
  • ________________

Read the whole guide by clicking here.

 What do YOU think? Share you opinion in the comments below.   

Images: Zazzle, Some ecards


13 responses to “Worth a Read: A Guide to Ageism for Media Peeps (and everyone else)

  1. I was a Senior during my last year of high school and my last year of college. I hate that word. As an older fitness professional the word “Spry” just makes me cringe and gag and “feisty” too. I hear “___ years young” and always question the person who says it because the dictionary definition of “young” is “having lived for a short period of time” A person could be 3 years young but not 70 years young.
    In the south “young lady” and such words as “sweetie and honey” are batted around so much you have to see context before you point out ageism but you can still usually tell

  2. Senior is very offensive. So is being called “young lady”. Pretty awful even if you are young. Spry is awful and so it “little old lady or man “. Clearly the person is called little because they are seen as diminished and of little capability or importance

    1. There needs to be more activism and “calling out” of ageism in media. Are there ANY current tv shows featuring a character over 60? Any? Why were older people portrayed positively in the 80’s and 90’s, but vilified now? Does that make sense?

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  4. Seasoned citizens is my preferred term describing older adults. I’m of the view, we aged like vintage wine growing finer having broader experiences over extended periods of time. A 100 year vintage is almost always chosen over a 25 year-old bottle of vintage(seasoned) wine.

  5. It’s such a tough call.

    Some instances of ageism are such blatant stereotypes that of course they ought to be removed from popular culture and the media.

    But as someone who writes about families and people over the age of 60, it can get repetitive to use the same words over and over again.

    For example: Is senior really an offensive term?

    Glad to hear people are paying attention to the very real problem of prejudice and the under-representation of a growing proportion of our population.

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