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Woofies or not, we want respect

© St. Petersburg Times
published May 28, 2002

I'm finally old.

It's not the gray hair ... okay, the mostly white hair. It's not 54 years under the Oregon and Florida sun.

No, it's much more telling than that.

I was buying coffee the other day, and the man behind the register -- an earnest sort who looked about 35 -- gave me change and said, "Here you go, young man."

What I said: Thank you.

What I was thinking: Young man? How dare you call me young man! Maybe I should put my fingers around your throat and we'll see how many pounds per square inch of pressure these wizened old hands can muster.

Cute, endearing terms for older people are meant to be friendly and kind. Sweetie. Darling. Gramps. Slugger. But they usually don't feel kind to the person on the receiving end.

The underlying message is that Gramps need not be taken seriously, just as adults often ignore children as people who count.

The extreme version of this phenomenon is easy to spot in nursing homes or adult day care centers when the staff isn't trained properly. The more frail the patient, the more likely he or she will be treated like a toddler. Mrs. Jones takes her pill with orange juice, and the aide croons to her in a tone reserved for 3-year-olds in pinafores:

"Ooh, wasn't that goooood. And that new hairdo from the salon? You're looking sooo pretty today."

Sincere compliments are always welcome. And certainly, people of any age can look good. But unless the delivery matches the tone and words one would use for a handsome 40-year-old, such comments marginalize people and everything they stand for.

Please. Just talk to us as if we were real people.

One reason younger people distance themselves from older people is fear, USF professor Marilyn Myerson says. "When we see older people, particularly someone humped over or obviously poor, we don't want to think that could be us."

The electronic media and Madison Avenue have struggled with image issues for years. Adults over 45 make up one-third of the population but control three-fourths of the wealth. You'd think producers looking for ratings and advertisers trying to sell stuff would salivate over them.

Yet older characters rarely appear on prime time. In the 1990s, only 3 percent of characters were perceived to be elderly, according to a study by Nancy Signorielli, communications professor at the University of Delaware. And even that tiny group was relegated mostly to comedies. Serious roles were virtually nonexistent.

Economics explains some of this disparity. The 18-49 market apparently watches lots of TV and is easily swayed by advertising.

Another problem, though, is figuring out how to portray older people. They are a complex bunch with multiple motivations, circumstances and affinities. They don't view chronological age as a strong source of self-identity and commonality.

So how can advertisers lure some older people without offending others?

Only two advertising archetypes seem consistently effective: grandparents appearing in positive, nurturing relationships with their grandchildren; and healthy, vital couples the ad people call "woofies," for well-off older folks. They drive luxury cars, watch their cholesterol and invest wisely with dependable brokers. The actors who play them always appear to be about 60 or younger.

Where does that leave the nonwoofies, the great majority of people aged 50 on up? Largely invisible.

So it's understandable when thirtysomethings, they of the TV generation, find little of interest beneath the gray heads that pass their way. They probably won't discover life's complexities until they hit 45 or 55 themselves.

In the meantime, lay off the "young man" pap.

Alzheimer's puzzle piece

Researchers at the University of South Florida's Roskamp Institute added to the puzzle last month, with an article in the journal Neurology about head injuries and a gene called the APOE4

When people who carry the APOE4 develop Alzheimer's, they tend to show symptoms earlier than people who carry different genes. They also tend to decline more rapidly. Researchers have known this connection for some time, but they don't know why it happens.

The USF researchers studied 110 clients of the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa who had suffered traumatic head injuries. People who carried the APOE4 gene performed significantly worse on memory tests than people without the APOE4, suggesting that the APOE family of genes has something to do with repairing damaged brain cells.

Perhaps the APOE4 version of the gene stinks at cell repair. Maybe that's why demented people with that gene decline so quickly.

"As we start to understand what's going wrong in cells, in diseases or after injury, we can identify targets for interventions, such as drugs" said Fiona Crawford, co-author of the study.

Kudos to that.

Odd fact of the month

Researchers at Duke University have discovered that mildly depressed women over 65 live longer than seriously depressed women. Duh

But they also live significantly longer than women who are not depressed at all, even after marital status, wealth and other factors are accounted for, according to an article in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

The phenomenon does not show up in younger women or men of any age. Just older women.

Best guess as to why: Mild depression helps women cope with the downsides of longevity, said the authors. Mild depression may be "a biological or psychological response to protect women from future risk."

Cheaper phones for some

These discounts, called Lifeline and Link-Up, date to 1984, when the Federal Communications Commission required local telephone carriers to help needy people. For people living on a fixed income, an extra $12 a month might make the difference between having a phone or not having one

Unfortunately, these freebies are so poorly publicized that only 14 percent of eligible people get the service.

To see if you qualify, call your telephone company and ask about the Lifeline and Link-Up programs. You also can call the Public Service Commission toll-free at 1-800-342-3552. AARP also will send you information if you call toll-free at 1-800-424-3410. If you call AARP, thank them for their recent efforts to get the word out.

Calling all 'notch babies'

Is the notch about fairness or fraud?

To write about this issue, I need to talk to people born during the "notch" and a few people born in later years. If you are willing to have your name and your Social Security benefit listed in the newspaper, please give me a call at (727) 893-8442 or 1-800-333-7505, ext. 8442, or write to me, with your phone number, at "" or at Stephen Nohlgren, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL, 33731.

With your help, maybe we can get to the bottom of the notch.

Stephen Nohlgren covers issues of aging and retirement for the St. Petersburg Times.

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