A “mixed white” cultural background may be the most common within American society, reflecting blends of various European ancestries. It is the view of this culture in regard to aging populations that will be examined, but it is important to remember that aging itself is removed from any other marginalized population, simply because it is a process affecting every living person. Different cultures react differently to physically handicapped individuals, or those suffering from autism; all cultures, and all people within them, hold active perceptions about aging because there is no more common denominator in the human race. In a sense, then, the predominantly white cultural perception of aging may only be, at most, a variation of other, distinct cultural perspectives. The subject is universal.
That said, it seems that the traditional view of senior citizens taken by whites is one that has always been marked by strong contradictions. In a sense, older people have typically been respected by virtue of nothing more than being older, and children were instructed, for centuries, to treat elders with respect. This likely arises from an ordinary and longstanding association in most people’s minds: when aging occurs, wisdom grows. At the same time, however, there has always been a kind of resentment felt toward the elderly. In the United States, the 20th century brought with it the rise of the nursing home, wherein elderly family members could be tended to without burdening the family directly. While this resource was and is distinctly tied to family dynamics, the reality is that such familial relations also greatly influence the way people perceive aging, then and now. Ultimately, aging has traditionally been seen by white, Western culture as a thing to be both respected and avoided. As will be noted, this contradiction has not appreciably changed.
History of Inclusion
The dichotomy of feeling regarding the aging from white culture may be seen as having influenced virtually every arena in which adults participate. In the world of business, for example, older people were esteemed as having greater experience, but were also hampered by expectations that their minds were not as quick as those of younger talent. More blatantly, the worlds of entertainment of decades past clearly illustrate a striking bias towards seniors, in terms of inclusion. Some of this is actually linked to gender discrimination; in the middle of the 20th century, for example, actresses beyond the age of forty were considered only for rare, “old woman” roles. If any cultural venue has consistently demonstrated a powerful discrimination toward aging, it is that of entertainment. More exactly, as white culture made profitable only entertainments presenting “idealized” individuals, the elderly suffered as much as racial minorities, homosexuals, and women.
The arena of sports is, of course, different, because the nature of sports places extreme demands on an individual’s physicality, and older people are typically less strong than younger. In terms of professional sports, a historical imperative has usually been in place: a player only has a limited number of good years, and these must be exploited before age lessens the abilities (Dodds, Swayne 450). This is a kind of rationale that has traditionally filtered down to sports activities in community arenas. It seems a sense of fear was in evidence, not necessarily as held to by seniors, but by those afraid that playing sports would be nearly fatal for them. Here, then, as with other areas of non-inclusion, it seems evident that cultural attitudes regarding limits created by aging also fueled the perceptions of seniors themselves. Cultures are cyclical, so it is likely that the aging population traditionally viewed itself exactly as it was brought up to.
Despite enormous advances made in combating physical weaknesses associated with aging, from increased emphasis on fitness and diet to medical treatments which ease debilitating conditions, being older seems to be as much of a cultural dilemma as it ever was, if not more so.
The strange duality of existing, ageist biases and increased respect for senior citizens seems to gain momentum all the time in modern society. Even as people are living longer, and legal restrictions against the elderly are fading, everything in media promotes an obsession with remaining young. It has been suggested, in fact, that this obsession is so prevalent, individuals now view the natural process of aging as a personal failure (Gibson, Singleton 112). It is difficult for the average person in the culture to see aging as a natural, and even desirable, process of living when they are daily bombarded with images of celebrities who undergo radical surgery in order to appear younger. In fact, if aging was previously perceived as unwelcome, it has now taken on a shameful aspect.
Inclusion, consequently, remains as much of an issue today as ever. Some advances in thinking have occurred, yet these are not necessarily for the good of the aging. For instance, ageism is perpetuated even as it is challenged by sports organizations today. Many such organizations, ranging from the amateur to the professional, proudly offer “senior divisions”, wherein only members above a certain age range can play (Hillier, Barrow 91). While this obviously encourages sports participation, it also marginalizes; the “old people” can play, but only in “old people” games. This illustrates the bizarre dichotomy in place, then and now.
More importantly, if there is a “cultural war” being waged between ideas of aging as positive and negative, the negativity is winning. A recent online survey of hundreds of thousands of respondents clearly indicated that self-esteem follows the same patterns it did in eras past, dropping somewhat in adolescence, rising in adulthood, and then dramatically falling for senior populations (Sigelman, Rider 363). The evidence overwhelmingly goes to support an unfavorable and widespread situation. Despite vastly increased degrees of knowledge regarding physical and mental abilities as being typically strong in seniors, being senior continues to be perceived as a thing to be avoided as much as possible.
Dodds, M., & Swayne, L. E. Encyclopedia of Sports Marketing and Management. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2011. Print.
Gibson, H. J., & Singleton, J. F. Leisure and Aging: Theory and Practice. Champaign: Human Kinetics, 2012. Print.
Hillier, S. M., & Barrow, G. M. Aging, the Individual, and Society. Belmont: Cengage Learning, 2010. Print.
Sigelman, C. K., & Rider, E. A. Life-Span Human Development. Belmont: Cengage Learning, 2011. Print.