Jan 29, 2019

Does The Lack of Older People on TV Affect Society’s Attitude Towards The Elderly?

Golden Girls

This story was originally written by Jakob Neeland last year. To honor Jakob who is sadly departing the HelloCare team today, we are republishing this important piece.

As a child growing up through the ’80s and ‘ 90s, part of me felt that it was as if television was made specifically for older people.

At 5.00pm every day the theme song from M*A*S*H rang out at 5.00 pm, signaling the bitter end to my cartoons, and the beginning of a bunch of familiar old faces appearing as part of regularly scheduled programming.

The Golden Girls, Murder She Wrote, Matlock, Empty Nest, Columbo and Keeping Up Appearances were merely a portion of the programs that depicted older people in positive leading roles. In 1989, a near 60-year-old Sean Connery was even voted the sexiest man alive.

Watching these TV shows may not have exactly been my choice back in those days, but looking back, I can definitely see the benefits of having watched programs that positively depicted older people as the focal point of the show.

As a child, your social circle is relatively small, and in those days – due to the non-existence of the internet – the main influence outside of your family and friends was television.

What you saw on TV was the clearest indication of what society valued, and what it didn’t.

At that time in my life, there was no doubt in my mind that the older age groups contained the wisest,  most charismatic, and revered people that there was.

And that’s exactly how I saw them.

Mainstream in 2020

Media in 2020 is a completely different experience to what it was only two decades ago.

Not only has the subject matter of content changed dramatically, but the way in which we access our entertainment has done a complete 180-degree turn.

Thanks to the invention of the internet, things have gone from turning on our radios and televisions and hoping to find entertainment, to having 24-7 access to anything that we can think of.

Another way to put it might be that we transformed from the set menu into the all you can eat buffet.

While modern technology does bring with it a number of positive benefits, one of the problems with giving someone the ability to access their own entertainment, is that people rarely venture outside of their comfort zone.

Avoiding everything except your own interests lessens the likelihood of an individual interacting with something new and different.

Ultimately, this inhibits their ability to learn and grow.

To be completely honest, if I could have only watched cartoons in the 1980s – instead of programs that featured older people in leading roles – I would have done so, and it would have been to my detriment.

Even though I saw the amazing love and respect that my mother had for her mother (my grandmother who lived in our home), seeing older people on TV reinforced the fact that these were people who should be valued in the highest regard.

Out of Sight Out of Mind

The unlimited smorgasbord of information and entertainment currently at our disposal is removing the elderly from the hearts and minds of the vast majority of people.

Even though ageing is something that none of us are immune to, the lack of value being placed on issues affecting the elderly shows that the majority of people view aging as an afterthought.

The structure of these modern-day entertainment platforms leave the masses believing that older people simply aren’t relevant, and this mindset has even trickled down into the mainstream news.

Mainstream TV news is one of the last remaining outlets of mass media that people have some awareness of collectively.

These are stories that some families still sit and talk about at their dinner tables, offering a window into what society values.

Unfortunately, it now takes scandalous headlines and shocking tales of abuse and for the plight of elderly people to peak the interest of the mainstream media, and even then, the conversation surrounding these types of things fizzles away rather quickly.

Not only are these moments few and far between, the subject matter means that on the rare occasion elderly faces do grace the silver screen they are associated with negativity.

And this has the ability to shape impressionable minds.

To put it simply, people don’t hold the elderly in high-regard anymore because they don’t hear enough good things about them to care.

Face Value

In stark contrast to the television screens of my childhood era, media platforms are now a sea of younger faces who either present or star in programs geared specifically to an audience of a similar age demographic.

It is extremely rare to see mainstream media figures aged 65 and above, and the idea of seeing people of that age bracket playing positive leading roles in quality programming is even more unusual in 2020.

While there may be the odd person who manages to secure a role presenting a program, there are very few older and elderly people portraying characters with substance.

Older men and women have been relegated to the stereotyped side-kick and comic-relief parts, the majority of which are devoid of any real depth of feeling.

Unfortunately, attitudes towards older people and the issues that they face currently reflect these characters.

Opinions begin to take shape at an early age, and the lack of an older presence within media and entertainment gives young people, who are just beginning to form their opinion, the idea that the elderly are not valuable enough to be represented on a grand scale.

This type of negative reinforcement through absence has the ability to affect the way that children view and treat the elderly, and it is also an indication of the importance that they will place on elderly issues as they begin to age.

Older people rely on the younger generations to provide the leadership and forward planning that advocates their safety.

Although I don’t expect the elderly will take center stage in the spotlight again any time soon, I do think that giving them meaningful media exposure can have a positive and lasting impact on those who will be making decisions about them in the future.

Seeing is believing.

So if we want people to believe that elderly people are valuable members of our society, maybe it’s time we started seeing them, free to air, and in the prime time hours once again.

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  1. I really applaud your article above about elderly people not being depicted in the media. Our society’s attitude to our “elders” is pretty appalling really. The Australian media is obsessed with young, good looking people only. Even negative attitudes to anyone over the age of about 25 in magazines is a problem. Its not getting better, its actually getting worse. Once it was only about fashion magazines featuring only ‘the young’ and thin etc but now if your not “insta worthy” forget it. Magazine articles also include a version of body shaming, if celebs are even slightly over weight, leave the house looking dishevelled or tired and then it goes from there. This is not setting a good example for our society and how you treat each other. Old people are not considered attractive in general in the media so they try to pretend they don’t exist. Essentially they are invisible. In European countries I’ve encountered a whole other mind set. They consider their elders valued. What they say and do counts. They are the head of the family and are shown respect. People want to hear what they have to say. They have life experience, wisdom and a lot to offer. They are role models for the young. I don’t consider a 20 something blogger/influencer the best role model for our children. We will all be elderly one day and although the media has a responsibility to positively depict all marginalised minority groups, they are playing a large part in marginalising the largest majority group in our society…….our ‘Elders’.

    1. Ann – well said. I have a European culture and confirm that what you say is true regarding the elderly. Australians generally do not have the same mind set regarding the extended family unit but that does not mean that they cannot be positively influenced by press and media. However, caring about a person comes from the heart and good care is given willingly, not because of a sense of duty. You are not the media and you do not appear to be of European heritage but you still have what is necessary to care about our elders – a good heart, a good mind and good intentions AND that really is all we need.

  2. What an excellent article and a credit to the writer who can view the subject from both sides of the fence.That he grew up in a family which values the elderly speaks volumes. I agree with all that has been said. Society being what it is today, I can only hope that it is not too late to turn the tide and that Mr. Neeland’s viewpoint and analysis of the situation regarding the elderly will seize the day for them all.

  3. What a great article to have read today and i thank you for putting this in writing. I have had this in mind for quite some time now and feel quite sad at the way the tide has turned . I don’t know how many young people that read these articles have my doubts that there would be very few. I would say that there are very few older people that are respected these days I know with the older people that I speak to and the stories that i hear from them. I would hope that a change one day will come but i have my doubts.

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