Depictions of aging Americans as disengaged from technology and ridiculed for their health have the potential to reduce optimism, a key indicator of healthy aging
Popular culture — and film in particular — continues to misrepresent seniors age 60 and over, inaccurately portraying the group in ways that may adversely affect how they view themselves and their health, according to new research.
The findings are part of a growing body of work from a partnership between Humana Inc. and the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative to determine the effects negative portrayals of seniors on film may have on aging adults in America. Professor Stacy L. Smith, director of the initiative, led the film portion of the research, which analyzed how seniors age 60 and over are portrayed in the 100 top-grossing films from 2016.
Out of the 100 films analyzed, 57 films featured a leading or supporting senior character. Of those 57 films, 44 percent featured ageist comments, with characters being referred to in demeaning ways, such as “old and decrepit,” “grumpy old rat,” or “crazy old man.” Further, a majority of the films with ageist comments (56 percent) included negative references regarding the health of seniors, including remarks about mental well-being, memory and hearing.
“There has been virtually no progress in the volume of senior representation in the top-grossing films in the past year,” Smith said. “As Hollywood embraces representation of other diverse groups, it’s imperative for aging Americans to be included in the industry’s focus on inclusion.”
The study also found that a majority of seniors in films are portrayed uncharacteristically — disengaged with technology and uninterested in travel, a notion debunked by Humana’s research, which found the opposite to be true.
According to Humana, the majority of aging Americans — 89 percent — are using computer technology, including the internet, on a weekly basis. On screen, only 41 percent of senior characters engaged with technology.
Humana’s research also found that seniors are active travelers, with 63 percent traveling at least once a year. According to USC Annenberg’s analysis, only 22.6 percent of seniors portrayed on film were shown traveling.
“As aging Americans continue to see these inaccurate depictions of themselves onscreen, their view of life past the age of 60 may begin to feel scary or ominous,” said Dr. Yolangel Hernandez-Suarez, vice president and chief medical officer, care delivery at Humana. “Our research shows that staying optimistic is vital to the perceived physical and mental health of seniors, and films may be negatively impacting their health by portraying seniors in demeaning or inaccurate ways.”
In fact, Humana’s quantitative survey of 2,000 people age 60 or over, found 87 percent of seniors who identify themselves as most optimistic reported their health as good to excellent, while only 44 percent of those who identified themselves as least optimistic reported the same. Additionally, the most optimistic respondents reported nine fewer physically unhealthy and seven fewer mentally unhealthy days per month than their least optimistic counterparts.
Further, 97 percent of the most optimistic seniors cited remaining physically active as a key motivator for maintaining good health, which contradicts depictions of seniors in popular films. Other motivators included enjoying the ability to travel (81 percent) and keeping an active social life (80 percent).
For additional background on Humana and USC Annenberg’s previous research on this topic, please click here.
About the Humana Quantitative Analysis
The quantitative survey includes 2,000 responses from U.S. adults aged 60 and older. Respondents represent a nationally-representative sample of older adults based on U.S. Census statistics for age, gender, geographic region and race/ethnicity. It was conducted between August 13-17, 2017, and was designed to assess perceptions of retirement, ageism and what motivates these people to stay healthy as they age. Other data collected include general self-assessment of health, activity levels and perception of aging in popular culture.
About the USC Annenberg Film Study
The USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative used both quantitative and qualitative methods in the study to assess the portrayal of senior characters. For quantitative measures, every speaking or named character on screen was evaluated for measures including gender, race/ethnicity, LGBT status and age. Following this, a series of measures regarding jobs and health were assessed to catalogue the depiction of characters age 60 and older across these stories. Finally, a qualitative analysis of main (i.e., leading or supporting) senior characters was performed.
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