Professor works to change ageist stereotypes in classes, with book

By University Communications
July 27, 2015
Leni Marshall

Photo: Leni Marshall

University of Wisconsin-Stout's Leni Marshall is convinced that individuals who do not stereotype people by age may live longer than those who do and that humanities professors can help promote the longevity factor.

Studies have shown that teaching college-age youth how to separate myths from the realities of age and aging help them change their attitudes, said Marshall, associate professor in English. Through more research, Marshall hopes to connect the dots and show that individuals with positive attitudes on aging live longer, healthier lives.

"The results of a study of 50-year-olds by Yale researcher Becca Levy and colleagues indicate that those who have low levels of ageist attitudes live an average of 7.5 years longer than individuals with high levels," Marshall said.

If young people, for example college-age youth, have the attitude that aging equals inability, they may not take care of themselves as they age and may limit themselves in activities and opportunities, she said.

"People have a lot of misconceptions about aging, and stereotypes affect how we respond to others and ourselves," Marshall said.

Authors book on age studies

Marshall first became interested in age studies —how age differences affect social relationships —as an undergraduate student. She witnessed firsthand what she considered the devaluation of elders by their families and others while working as a home health aide and later as a manager for a senior care home.  

As a result of her interest, she has conducted research, presented papers and has written the book "Age Becomes Us" to be published in July by SUNY —State University of New York —Press.

The book explores age studies in theory, literature and practice and asks readers to question their beliefs about age, aging and old age. 

In her research paper "Thinking Differently about Aging: Changing Attitudes Through the Humanities," she says, "One of the few proven methods for reducing ageist ideation is through participation in a video screening and a pair of follow-up conversations. This intervention is similar to the regular activities of many faculty members in the humanities."

Ageist stereotypes

In her classes, Marshall has students explore their thoughts on ageism by asking them which ageist assumptions older people make about college-age students.

Students report that older people think young people are irresponsible, apolitical, lazy and feel entitled.

Marshall then asks her students some of their ideas about old people and gets another list of stereotypes: sleep a lot, slow, cranky, set in their ways, technology-haters and terrible drivers.

"Students are frustrated that people assume such negative things about them, because not all students are like that, and through the exercise they realize that older people might feel equally constrained by stereotypes about elders," she said. 

She also has students list identity categories used in discrimination. After Marshall's lessons, the number of students who realize they include age as a potential basis for discrimination doubles.

Marshall has applied for a grant from the National Institute on Aging to address ageist stereotypes with the use of interventions —strategies that address negative attitudes. Other research has shown the effectiveness of intervention strategies.

If the grant is approved, she would recruit students to volunteer when they are freshmen and work with them to dispel negative stereotypes on aging throughout their four years of college. Every year, she would add a new group, with ideally 150 students in each group.

Marshall also hopes to learn which strategies are the most effective at producing more positive attitudes toward aging and in dispelling ageist myths.

Even without grant funding, Marshall hopes her work may help students live longer, healthier lives.