Sunday, April 20, 2008

Ageism, ableism directed toward Sen. Byrd?

April 17 The New York Times did a story about 90-year-old Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., headlined, "How Do You Tell the Oldest Senator to Slow Down? Very Carefully." The story contains several negative assumptions about someone who uses mobility equipment such as a wheelchair or walker. And I don't like the picture used either.

First, the picture (shown above). I know the photographer is trying to be artsy with the negative space, etc., but it presents Sen. Byrd as an isolated figure. I think it implies he should be hidden behind closed doors. It seemingly invites the viewer to enter the photo and shut the door so the senator won't have to be seen by the world. I know, "eye of the beholder," but the photo could have shown Sen. Byrd tackling his day's work, which apparently he does every day there is a vote in the U.S. Senate.

The story lists the senator's past medical history and mobility issues, and it's clear that the reason for the story is that some Democratic leaders want to ease Sen. Byrd out. The tone of the article at the beginning seems to agree with these Democratic leaders, when it emphasizes details like this: "He uses double canes, a walker or, occasionally, a wheelchair to get around, and is always surrounded by loyal aides. Despite his infirmities, he made campaign appearances recently in West Virginia for a House candidate and has physical therapy at home."

But thankfully the reporter, Carl Hulse, allows Sen. Byrd to prove some of these negative assumptions imbeded in the story wrong.

"Wednesday’s hearing loomed as the opportunity for a show of strength by Mr. Byrd. Or at least as much strength as a 90-year-old with health issues can summon. All eyes were on Mr. Byrd, who as president pro tempore of the Senate is third in line to the presidency, to demonstrate he could still take charge.

"He appeared to succeed. Though he read most of his statements from pages filled with extra-large type while being closely attended by staff members, he frequently ad-libbed to emphasize his deep opposition to the war: 'Dead, dead, dead,' he intoned of the more than 4,000 killed while fulminating about the conflict’s cost as a 'whopping, whopping $600 billion, spelled with a ‘b.’ ”

The extra-large type of his speech is relevant how? Most people I know over 40 kick up the type size when they plan to give a talk or lecture.

I am glad the the reporter showed in detail how Sen. Byrd proved his competence to his fellow senators. But I felt the story still ended by leaving lingering questions about older people who may have disabilities.

"While Mr. Byrd may have quieted talk of replacing him for now, Democratic leaders will be watching the situation and his health, and it is possible that Mr. Byrd could face new pressure to step aside if he falters.

"But he is hardly the first senator to cope with infirmity in an institution where the average age is nearly 63."

I think Carl Hulse needs to read up on the topic of aging -- 63 is no longer "old." Lloyd Garver of CBS News wrote last year that "today, the average age for someone moving into a nursing home is 81. In the 1950's, it was 65. In a 2005 Merrill Lynch survey of people between the ages of 40 and 59, 76 percent said they planned to retire when they were about 64 — and then start an entirely new career. Men and women in their 70s and 80s race in almost every marathon. Seniors teach and take classes, travel, and just seem to live fuller lives than ever before."

But they do have to face the ageism so prevalent in America. Psychologists even say that ageism might affect lifespan.

"Not only are negative stereotypes hurtful to older people, but they may even shorten their lives," psychologist Becca Levy found, according to the APA Monitor. "In her study of people 50 years and older, those with more positive self-perceptions of aging lived 7.5 years longer than those with negative self-perceptions of aging."

"On the other hand, people's positive beliefs about and attitudes toward the elderly appear to boost their mental health. Levy has found that older adults exposed to positive stereotypes have significantly better memory and balance, whereas negative self-perceptions contributed to worse memory and feelings of worthlessness."

"Age stereotypes are often internalized at a young age--long before they are even relevant to people," notes Levy, "adding that even by the age of four, children are familiar with age stereotypes, which are reinforced over their lifetimes."

All this to say, the media need to be careful about how they portray older people like Sen. Byrd.