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The joke is on those who belittle older adults

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Dear Readers:

Over the years, many have asked me to comment on public policy issues, political debates and other contemporary topics. My response has been the same: “I write about successful aging and avoid taking sides on important and often controversial issues.”

This week I’d like to change my tune, at least for this one column.

It’s about the recent Academy Awards telecast. It was a big event, with 39.3 million viewers; up 4 percent from last year.

And age seemed to be a consistent theme.

Host Billy Crystal, at 63, was considered by some to be too old. According to the Los Angeles Times, critics said that hiring a sexagenarian host didn’t exactly help project an image of youthfulness. Yet Crystal’s references disparaging of age classified him as the main offender, according to blogger Ronni Bennett of Times Goes By.

Age was part of a running commentary. Christopher Plummer, 82, “has a tendency to wander off,” said Crystal.

And “Next year this will be called the Flomax Theater.”

After Plummer won his award for best supporting actor, Crystal said, “Congratulations, Mr. Plummer, the average age of the winners has now jumped to 67.”

It’s hard to determine if Crystal’s jokes were offensive. I actually thought they were funny. We can’t take ourselves too seriously.

What raised my ire was The New York Times review by television critic Alessandra Stanley. She wrote, “The whole night looked

like an AARP pep rally starting with an introduction by Morgan Freeman.”I don’t think she meant this as a compliment.

If we want to know why older adults are marginalized, the Stanley article and its headline – “Even the Jokes Have Wrinkles” – serve as a good example. Such press and language overlooks what we know about the 50-plus population. It makes us second-class citizens and acceptable as long as we don’t have center stage.

It negates the following:

• The 50 and over population is a $2 trillion to $3 trillion market. They have more discretionary income than any other age group. And they buy.

• They vote in large numbers. For the first time, Americans age 45 and older make up a majority of the voting-age population.

• Older adults give back to the community. In 2010, nearly 22 million baby boomers dedicated 2.9 billion hours of service to communities across the country with almost 30 percent engaged in a volunteer activity; among those 65-plus, almost 24 percent volunteered.

• Grandparents are raising our grandchildren – 2 1/2 million grandparents are doing it. And 4.4 million of these children are living in their grandparents’ home.

• Older adults are entrepreneurs. In 2010, almost a quarter of new entrepreneurs were between ages 55 and 64, up from 14.5 percent in 1996, as reported by the Kauffman Foundation. Marc Freedman, CEO of Civic Ventures, refers to this growth in entrepreneurship as a second wave of innovation and creativity.

• Older adults are doing big things to solve social problems. The Purpose Prize sponsored by Civic Ventures and funded by the Atlantic Philanthropies and the John Templeton Foundation acknowledges this. The Prize rewards those who turn their personal passions and experiences into invaluable contributions across sectors, continents and generations, according to Freedman.

On the plus side, mature women were well represented at the Academy Awards: Meryl Streep won for best actress, at age 63; Viola Davis, at 47, and Glenn Close, at 65, both were nominated in that category.

The issue is not with those who were honored but with the critics who give their interpretation of the significance of age.

Advertisers want to attract the 18- to 49-year-olds. Yet we know that those age 45 and older control more than half of all discretionary income in the United States. Where is the logic?

These issues go beyond logic. The “AARP pep rally” remark reveals a transparent bias against older adults that defies what research, reports and experience continue to affirm.

Our older adult population is one of the most significant sources of talent and wisdom; at the same time, it is the most wasted resource in our country.

But times are slowly changing. Let’s hope the critics catch up – particularly as they find themselves in the AARP population.

Copyright 2011 Helen Dennis. All rights reserved.

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