Images of aging take many forms. Open a newspaper and you can read about a 77-year-old man who just ran the Boston Marathon. Then turn on TV and you can't escape drug commercials showing middle-aged and older people complaining about their health.
Positive or negative, blatant or subtle, these images help to shape collective attitudes about the later years.
Gene Cohen, a gerontologist at George Washington University, points to another influence that sometimes casts older people in negative ways - children's books. Consider fairy tales, he says. The world of the Brothers Grimm features winsome children, beautiful maidens, handsome princes, and kind fairy godmothers. But it also includes ugly old witches, cruel stepmothers, and odd men.
In an international study of 2,500 fairy tales, only about 2 percent include older characters. Even when they do appear, many are cast in negative roles. As Dr. Cohen, director of the university's Center on Aging, Health, and Humanities, puts it, "They're typically portrayed as weird, wicked, or weak."
Those three W's show up in other children's literature as well. "When you read children's books in general, many characters are described in detail," Cohen says. "But very often, older characters are described in one word: old." It's as though the author thinks that single word tells readers all they need to know. Illustrations typically match the text by presenting limited and negative portrayals.
To counter the "weird, wicked, and weak" stereotypes, Cohen is developing a list of 100 children's books that deal with aging and older characters in a positive light. It will include fiction and nonfiction for preschool to Grade 6. Later, he plans to compile a list of titles for older children and adolescents.
"The point is not to burn the classics," Cohen says. "They're great books. But you need to supplement them with other, more positive images of aging, more reflective of what we see today."
He is heartened by what he regards as a sea change in recent years in the way books deal with older characters. In new books, they are more fully developed. Intergenerational relationships, once very negative, have also improved. People are starting to look at the potential of aging, Cohen says, rather than simply the problems.
Cohen has long been aware of a paradox. When interviewers ask children about older people in their family, their views are positive. But their view of older people in general is negative.
He offers a theory to explain this disconnect. "When you look at the earliest books children are exposed to, the images of aging are negative. Think of Cinderella's stepmother, the queen in Snow White, and Rumpelstiltskin. He's a weird guy."
By contrast, titles on the list, most of them published in the past decade, offer positive roles.
Older people in these books areinvolved in creative endeavors. They are mentors, advisers, confidants, and problem-solvers, helping families find solutions to complicated issues.
Characters include leaders who contribute to their communities, and who hold positions of power and influence. Theyexhibit strength and resourcefulness. Plots also show positive relationships between old and young, and portray older people as kind, wise, helpful.
In illustrations, older characters also look to be interesting people, someone a reader would like to know.
Cohen hopes the book list will be ready by autumn. He plans to distribute it through schools, public libraries, and websites. He sees it addressing a broader issue - the lack of public education about aging for children. "Very few schools have any curricula that include an understanding of aging," he says.
To coordinate the project, he is launching the Center for Societal Education about Aging for Change, or the SEA Change Center, based at the university. It will collaborate with the American Library Association's children's division.
Tomorrow marks the beginning of Older Americans Month, an annual observance honoring the important contributions older people make. The very fact of its 40-year existence - the result of a presidential proclamation in 1963 - indicates, at least in part, a need to improve images.
As young children grow up with more positive views of aging, aware of greater possibilities in the later decades, they could eventually be part of an older generation for whom 77-year-old athletes will be more common, and part of an era in which TV and literary portrayals of decrepitude are less common. Then book lists will no longer be necessary.