“Aged by culture”
Internalize: “To incorporate (values, patterns of culture, etc.) within the self as conscious or subconscious guiding principles through learning, socialization” [or unconscious assimilation]. (Merriam-Webster Dictionary.com)
“Aged by culture”
Margaret Gullette (2004), along with Margaret Cruickshank (2003) and Laura Hurd Clark (2011) argue that the internalization of negative attitudes towards older age and aging takes place because we are “aged by culture” rather than by biological forces or chronological stages of aging (Gullette, 2004). This viewpoint emphasizes that, although dependent on individual societies and cultures, our aging process is shaped according to the attitudes and values of an ageist culture present in our society, consequently causing us to internalize the ideology of aging as decline (Hurd Clarke, 2011; Gullette, 2004; Crickshank, 2003). As Gullette so clearly explains:
“Decline is a metaphor as hard to contain as dye. Once it has tinged our expectations of the future (sensations, rewards, status, power, voice) with peril, it tends to stain our experiences, our views of others, our explanatory systems and then our retrospective judgments” (Gullette, 2004).
As would be expected, cross-cultural research indicates that there is less internalized ageism in older adults from cultures with less ageist views (Levy & Langer, 1994). Speaking from a critical feminist perspective, many of these scholars also suggest that the ageist and sexist attitudes are applied more to women than men as they age. The phrase “aged by culture” was first used by Margarette Gullette in her invited lecture: “What menopause again! After the Hormone Debacle.” Women’s Studies Research Centre (WSRC), Brandeis, Dec. 12, 2006.
Internalized aging stereotypes begin in childhood (DePallo, et al., 1995; Gullette, 2004) where they are then reinforced throughout the life course by sustained exposure to negative attitudes and stereotypes about older people present in North American and European society. These attitudes and stereotypes are then subsequently internalized into negative self-stereotypes in older age (Levy, 2003). Becca Levy and Mahzarin Banaji (2002) suggest that because these negative stereotypes apply to others for a long period of time, to a certain degree succumbing to an internalization of these negative stereotypes of aging is easy because there is no reason psychologically to guard oneself against these stereotypes. However, intergenerational relationships and positive interactions with older adults can also have a mitigating effect on our own attitudes about age and aging (Cadieux, et al, 2019; Hagestad, & Uhlenberg, 2006; Funk, 2006a).
Becca Levy and Mahzarin Banaji (2002) suggest that because these negative stereotypes apply to others for a long period of time, to a certain degree succumbing to an internalization of these negative stereotypes of aging is easy because there is no reason psychologically to guard oneself against these stereotypes (p. P203). Research also identifies other factors that influence this process of self-stereotyping including: the dominance of aging stereotypes over interactions with older adults in affecting the attitudes individuals have towards old age and older individuals, although research has also shown that relationships and positive engagement with older adults can influence attitudes towards older adults and aging (Cadieux, et al, 2019; Babcock, 2016; Knox et al., 1986), and the continual drawing on stereotypes in order to quickly and efficiently process the large amount of information that individuals encounter daily (Donizetti, 2019; Levy & Banaji, 2002; Bodenhausen, Kramer & Susser, 1994).
Numerous research projects highlight these results. For example, the Precipitating Events Project, conducted between 1998 and 2008 in the US, examined the correlation between positive and negative age stereotypes and recovery by older adults from disability (Levy, et al., 2012). The internalized age stereotypes that were held by participants were assessed based on the participants’ responses to listing the first five words or phrases that came to mind when thinking of older persons (p. 1972). Results from the research showed that “older persons with positive age stereotypes [using words such as spry] were 44% more likely to fully recover from severe disability than those with negative stereotypes [using words such as decrepit]” (p. 1973). Another study measuring gait in older people, showed that gait was directly affected by negative or positive messages on old age and aging presented to research participants before undergoing a walking test (Hausdorff, et al., 1999). Subsequently, because old age is associated with frailty, decline, and loss of independence, evidence has revealed that internalizing these attitudes has been associated with poorer health outcomes and greater morbidity (Boult, et al., 1996; Levy, 2003).