Has the media been painting a dark picture of life after sixty?


Is there a qualitative difference between the various stages of the life cycle? Why do most Czechs believe that the elderly have no life? A study conducted throughout 2004 suggests the Czech media has been painting a grim picture of life after sixty.

63-year old Jaroslava Bartova speaks on behalf of the remaining 20% of the Czech population over the age of sixty, who say Czechs are full of stereotypes about old age. The Research Institute for Labour and Social Affairs sociologist, Lucie Vidovicova, says this is common to most countries around the world and there's a term for it: "ageism":

"Ageism is usually understood as discrimination on the basis of age. I would rather call it an ideology. It is a commonly shared notion that there is a qualitative difference between different stages of the life cycle. There are, of course, differences but they are not qualitative. Youth has good and bad times just like old age has. But ageism says that everything after the age of fifty is bad."

Diaconia of the Evangelical Church of the Czech Brethren works with and cares for over three thousand older men and women a year. Last year, it commissioned two sociologists to look into how the media portrays the elderly. Lucie Vidovicova was one of the sociologists, who conducted the study:

"We are not very happy with the results because the subjects in which older people are reported on are not very positive. It's mainly in connection with the need of pension reform, which means that they are directly or indirectly accused of using up our financial resources and taking money from the rest of society. Another problem is that they are often involved in reports on criminal acts, either as the victims or even as offenders. So if you were to only read the newspapers and watch the news on television, the message you would get is that the elderly are taking our money and they involved in crime."

The study reviewed all prime time news broadcasts of the country's three main TV stations and covered all issues of five leading dailies of the year 2004.

"To say that old age starts with retirement is wrong. Many people who have just retired say it is nonsense. While it is something new in their life, they did not get old on the day they stopped working. I don't believe that there is one particular point in time when you start to get old. It's a process of life. We are born and we start to get old on the very first day. There are some theories that say that we grow older already in the mother's womb, so that's nothing new for us. We are in a situation where in the year 2030 a third of the population in the Czech Republic will be over the age of sixty. We have to change the expectations of old age."

According to Lucie Vidovicova, excerpts from Czech newspaper articles such as this one indirectly claim that the elderly are responsible for injuries because they are irresponsible and careless:

"The north-Moravian police have filed charges against a 68 year old pensioner, whose dog bit a seven year old girl last summer."

If the owner of the dog was under the age of fifty, the newspaper would either not consider it newsworthy or not find it important to print the person's age. Pavel Vychopen, the director of Diaconia, wants to change this approach:

"The issues related to aging and the elderly are very complex and there are many things that must be improved. The image of the elderly in the media is full of stereotypes, which are rooted in the past and have to be eliminated. That's what we want to contribute to."

But Jaroslava Bartova, who currently lives on a pension of around 5,000 crowns a month (a little over 200 US dollars), says the media cannot be blamed for all the problems that pensioner's face:

"I do not want communism to return but have to say that back then pensioners had it better - they enjoyed more respect from the rest of society and led a more comfortable life. Today's government has failed. The pension system has to be reformed and we need more money. You can only lead a normal life if you're willing to give up you're social life but if you want to keep on going to the theatre or meet your friends at cafes, it's virtually impossible because you just can't afford it."

According to Pavel Vychopen, the media can make a difference even in this respect:

"This is a very powerful world. The media can create pressure on the state. They can form public opinion, which is a very powerful instrument. So, if the media are on our side in the struggle to create a better image of seniors in this society, then I believe that the state will have to accept it as well. I believe that in the struggle to make society friendlier towards older generations, the media play a very important role."

After presenting the results of its study to the media, Diaconia now hopes to introduce a 'code of ethics' that journalists should follow in the future when reporting about the elderly and old age. A brochure with all the basic information on ageing and examples that life does not end after sixty will also be distributed to some 100,000 families around the country. And, according to Lucie Vidovicova, there's hope that the country's 'future pensioners' are gaining awareness that they too will not be spared from old age:

"It's probably rooted in the Czech culture, where we are not used to fighting for our rights. There are only a few groups around today, who do that for older people. The UK is a good example of a country where they stand for the rights of older people. This is very new for us because we are not used to thinking in these terms. But this is going to change because this huge expected rise in older people in 2030 means that I am going to fight for my rights in the future. We're a new generation that has seen the world, has travelled, and will bring that change as well."