Teaching Tips

Using popular media to engage undergraduate students in the psychology of aging

Suggestions on how to help students overcome ageist stereotypes and increase aging knowledge.

By Eric S. Allard, PhD

“Slow…feeble…forgetful…cranky…lonely…gray…hard of hearing…”

A common refrain emerges during the first day of class for my undergraduate survey course in adult development and aging. Before even getting to the syllabus, I ask my students to say aloud the first words that come to mind when they think about “old age.” Without fail, the first several responses are a greatest hits tribute to typical negative conceptualizations of aging; many minutes will pass before a positive or optimistic descriptor is uttered, if at all. This should be relatively unsurprising given the persistent stereotypes that our culture perpetrates regarding the prospect of growing old.

Fortunately, as educators who advocate for the dynamic nature of the aging process, we have the opportunity to address and dispel common misconceptions within our field. To this end, I have developed and borrowed several activities and projects that have been quite useful in facilitating student interest and expanding knowledge within the ever-maturing field of adulthood and aging.

I will discuss three main projects that I feel have been the best received and effective for broadening student awareness and curiosity regarding more accurate and optimistic aging portrayals. Two projects are designed to be small activities, while the third could be implemented as a semester-long capstone assignment. All three utilize theory and research in adult development as a foundation for applicability to real-world contexts.

The first assignment deals specifically with addressing stereotypical portrayals of aging in consumer media. This assignment was borrowed from an activity I was assigned as a graduate student for a course in midlife development. Here students are tasked with identifying stereotypical images of aging among across various products and/or advertisements. Common examples include greeting cards (the “over-the-hill” trope), vitamins/supplements/medications/cosmetics (the “anti-aging” theme) and automobiles (the “mid-life crisis” myth), among others. Once students choose their respective example, they are instructed to identify the stereotype/misconception being promoted and then revise the depiction in a way that exemplifies a more accurate representation. Hence, students are able to critically identify the problematic aspects of how aging is addressed while creatively reframing the narrative. To assist with this latter portion of the assignment, I provide students with examples of positive/realistic aging representations in consumer media. One such example includes Dove’s “Pro-Age” campaign, launched in 2007. Finally, students present their discoveries to the class, outlining the most problematic features of the original product/ad while highlighting how their revised representation addresses the identified misconception(s).

The second activity involves students searching for aging depictions in popular television programs and movies. Here, students are given the flexibility to highlight either stereotypical/exaggerated versus more realistic depictions of aging characters/themes. Furthermore, students have the option to choose more than one program/movie for the purposes of showing how certain aging themes and character depictions have changed over time. For instance, have representations of older adults become less stereotypical in more modern media? Has there been a shift in the number of movies and programs that feature older adults in leading roles? Popular exemplars from former students have included Golden Girls, Modern Family, Harold and Maude, On Golden Pond and Something’s Gotta Give, just to name a few. As with the consumer media assignment, students provide a summary as to the veracity of the character(s)/theme portrayed or the evolution of such portrayals in consultation with theory and research disseminated throughout the course.

The final assignment that has been quite valuable in transforming students’ knowledge and attitudes about the aging process comprises a qualitative research project that assesses aging themes that emerge out of the life and work of a creative icon, including (but not limited to) visual artists, actors/actresses/directors, writers and musicians. This project has evolved from a similar activity that I was assigned as an undergraduate student for a special topics course titled The Experience of Aging through Music and Film. Here students were provided a basic background of aging theory and key phenomena, with an emphasis on how such information could be tied to the work of a popular artist. Through the years, students have investigated issues related to midlife transitions in the music of Paul Simon; how the theory of selective optimization with compensation can be related to the work of Michelangelo, Georgia O’Keefe and pianist Arthur Rubenstein; and mortality themes in the films of Akira Kurosawa. Students are required to create an APA-style review paper and discuss their findings in a conference-style talk at the end of the semester. Another benefit of this project is that it provides students with an opportunity to discuss their findings in forums outside of the classroom. For instance, aspects of this project have been presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Gerontology in Higher Education, and students have presented their individual papers at academic conferences, including the annual meeting of the Popular Culture Association.

A common thread throughout these aforementioned assignments is the focus on exposing students to the multidirectional and multidimensional nature of adult development and aging. By having students address principles of aging within a real world context, they are able to refine their conceptualization of developmental psychology using a life course perspective. Furthermore, as undergraduate students are just beginning to enter their adulthood years, this educational exposure could help set the stage for eliciting positive attitudes regarding their own aging trajectories and disengaging from the “slow…feeble…forgetful…cranky” images of late life.

Eric S. Allard, PhD, is an assistant professor of psychology at Cleveland State University.