Disability Studies Quarterly
Spring 2006, Volume 26, No. 2
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Palmore, EB, Branch, L, Harris, DK. (Eds.). Encyclopedia of Ageism. New York: The Haworth Press, Inc., 2005. 347pages, $39.95, Softbound 0-7890-1890-X.

Reviewed by Michael R. Cruse, The George Washington University

American popular culture has idolized youth and longevity for as long as there have been demographics in advertising. The current bombardment of our popular culture with messages targeting the aging process, as though it were something to be combated, makes the Encyclopedia of Ageism all the more overdue. The societal effects of the aging process on the Baby Boomer generation have been little explored outside of academic circles. This encyclopedia provides an opportunity to begin developing a reference tool to better understand the impact of aging within our national culture, and the discrimination that is so often associated with aging in our society. Much as one might expect, the encyclopedia offers an alphabetized list of life areas affected by ageism, and references to the information presented by its contributors. From "Abuse in nursing homes" to "Voice quality", the editors use a broad brush stroke in painting a picture of ageism and its many effects.

The authors surpass traditional notions of what an encyclopedia is meant to provide the reader, and take the next step to offering us tools to better understand our relation to ageist attitudes. Erdman B. Palmore, one of the title's editors, provides an assessment for better gauging the reader's susceptibility to ageist bias. The 'Facts on Aging Quiz' (FAQ) is a two part assessment, composed of 50 True or False statements that "can be used as an indirect measure of both negative and positive ageism" (p.136). This assessment gauges both negative and positive ageist bias, with the understanding that many people may exhibit both types of bias in different areas. Palmore states that the FAQ has been used widely in studies, and reports that the results show "...the average person in the United States is able to answer only about 55 percent of the items correctly" (p.138). Erdman states that the main variable with a consistent relationship to a negative ageist bias is knowledge about aging. Simply stated, this means that "those with more knowledge have less negative and more positive attitudes" (ibid). Therefore, the conclusion drawn from this assessment is that more facts on aging will help to reduce the degree of negative ageist bias in the prevailing culture.

While the encyclopedia's contributors provide a number of examples of ageist attitudes taken from a variety of examples, their bias towards uncovering these attitudes is clear from what remains unmentioned. For example, regarding Hollywood and its limited roles for aging actresses, the contributors note this as a clear bias towards younger actresses, and a result of ageist attitudes in the film industry. However, there is no counter-balance to this view, which might be achieved by mentioning such contemporary film classics as Cocoon, Fried Green Tomatoes and Driving Miss Daisy. Similarly, with issues of sex and sexuality, the contributors discuss the taboo nature of these topics in regard to aging, noting the alarming consequences in terms of inadequate HIV and AIDS prevention, detection and treatment among older populations. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data cited as evidence date back to 1999, a time when, as Palmore notes, "about half the cases of AIDS in the United States are classified by the [CDC] as being due to the exposure of men who have sex with men" (p.174). More current data from the CDC no longer reflect this trend as the predominant mode of HIV/AIDS transmission, leading the reader to question the currency of the information presented. Additionally, the taboo of sex within older age groups is being eroded by pharmaceutical developments of such impotence drugs as Viagra and Calais, and their endorsements by such prominent figures as one-time presidential candidate Bob Dole.

Americans, as a broadly defined group, are also invested in the differences in cultural attitudes towards age. The contributors discuss attitudes on aging in Japan and other Eastern cultures, as well as Mexican and African-American attitudes and beliefs. While there is some mention of the differences and similarities among these groups, the depth of these discussions is limited, serving to perpetuate a homogeneous view of these cultures. A more developed discussion of cultural differences in attitudes towards aging may not be appropriate for an encyclopedia format; however, the editors might consider a more integrated approach to discussing culture across the topic of aging, rather than presenting it as a distinct subject which does not adequately represent the nuances of these cultures.

The encyclopedia's structure does lend itself well to an overview of the historical development of social gerontology, and a discussion of its effects on perceptions of ageism. This discussion explains the underlying assumptions of disengagement theory, and the basis for questioning it as a successful descriptor of the aging process. Refuting the premise of a theory which was "...considered necessary for both the smooth-functioning society and the successful aging of individuals," the encyclopedia operates from a more engaged perspective (p.116). As an institutional form of ageism, the contributors argue, disengagement theory's "demise marked the beginning of the end of attempts to develop comprehensive theories in social gerontology" (ibid). Without a reliance on any operational theory, the editors and contributors to the Encyclopedia of Ageism leave the reader to determine how best to use this resource to engage in a meaningful dialogue on a complex subject.

Copyright (c) 2006 Michael R. Cruse

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