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Not much gray on the silver screen

September 14, 2016
by Nicole Stempak, Senior Editor
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New research shows few characters aged 60 and over are shown on the silver screen, and when they are, those characters are met with demeaning or ageist references.

Those depictions don’t reflect how seniors see themselves, according to two separate studies conducted by Humana Inc. and the Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative (MDSCI) at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. The MDSCI is a think tank that researches diversity in entertainment through multiple lenses.

“Seniors are rarely seen on screen, and when they are, they are ridiculed,” says Stacy L. Smith, Ph.D., associate professor and founder and director of the MDSCI in a news release. “When did we become a society that is comfortable with subtle and stigmatizing stereotypes about a group that have long served as the pillars and stalwarts of our communities?”

The USC analyzed the 100 top-grossing films from 2015 and profiled every speaking or named character on screen across a variety of measures. Using this database, Smith and her team quantitatively analyzed attributes of all 448 characters aged 60 and older.

In August, Humana conducted a quantitative analysis of 2,035 U.S. adults aged 60 and older to assess perceptions and the importance of various traits, characteristics or attributes of people as they age and rate themselves against those same values.

Both studies found on-screen perceptions didn’t usually match up with real life:

  • Eleven percent of characters evaluated were aged 60 and older. Census data shows 18.5 percent of the population is aged 60 and older.  
  • Thirty of the 57 films that featured a leading or supporting senior character featured ageist comments, with the characters being referred to as “a relic,” “a frail old woman” and “a senile old man.” Respondents in Humana’s survey reported they are highly aware (95 percent), resilient (91 percent) and physically active (71 percent).
  • Twenty-nine percent of on-screen leading or supporting characters aged 60 or older engaged with technology. Eighty-four percent of survey respondents report using the internet weekly to read news, visit social network sites or access other information.
  • One-third of seniors on-screen pursue interests in hobbies and 38.5 percent attend. Survey respondents were more than two times as likely to engage socially with friends or relatives on a weekly or monthly basis. 
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