Take a look at the pictures. At first, the obvious connection is that they all portray older people. Look deeper. These pictures all have something else in common. They reinforce the ideas that older people are frail and inactive. This is a very limited and incomplete picture of aging. This collection is an example of visual ageism.

Ageism is the set of assumptions that we make about people based solely on their age. This can come across in our speech and writing. However, it can also be perpetrated by the pictures we see, especially when taken collectively.

Visual ageism leaves out so much

Imagine if you knew nothing about the United States and then watched a bunch of movies about the Old West. Perhaps you’d think most all Americans wear cowboy hats, know how to ride horses and are of European descent.

Some pictures are just too much – showing older adults as childish or irrelevant. However, any single picture may not even be ageist by itself. When most of the imagery we see portrays the same assumptions, our imagery collectively becomes ageist. Our mental conception of aging becomes limited by what we see.

When we hear the word “senior”, we often come up with negative associations. Most people do not want to be called “senior”, even if the literal definition is accurate for them. In the same way, no one wants to be seen as a “senior” either. If you do a search for images of “seniors” or “older people” on the internet, the images are too often of people who look frail or no longer relevant. This is visual ageism.

Picturing aging accurately

To get an accurate collective picture, we need images of older people that represent more than just failing health or retirement. For instance, many older people are still very active in the workforce. Not everyone retires and goes on vacation. Older people are also caring for others, devoting their time to causes, and running organizations. Many older people are busy.

It is time to expand our picture of aging, literally. Combating visual ageism creates a society where aging is respected and seen in all its fullness. Aging does not equal frailty or irrelevance. Aging means becoming wiser, more capable in new ways, and reaching our fullest potential. Most importantly, it can mean a whole range of things and it differs for everyone. If we want to live free of ageist prejudice, our imagery must reflect the whole picture.

Want to make a difference? Help combat visual ageism in our photo contest and sign up for our newsletter here.

Sara Breindel, Changing the Narrative blogger

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