"Television is everywhere; no longer a novelty, it is integrated into the fabric of our experience," note researchers Richard Davis and Jim Davis in their book, "TV's Image of the Elderly." The facts support their conclusion. In 1988, 98 percent of American households owned a television set, and watched it an average of 7.1 hours daily.
Who's watching the "tube"? More often than not, someone age 55 or older. According to a study by the National Council on the Aging, older people watch television more frequently than other adults and are more apt to be heavy viewers.News and public-affairs shows, top choices among older viewers, help the elderly, particularly the house-bound, keep in touch with current events. Turning on the news is often easier on the eyes for those with vision problems. TV shows of all types also provide companionship and offer older viewers a way of marking time as well as filling it.
Recognizing the importance of television in the lives of older people and the power of the medium to shape societal attitudes toward this age group, researchers have tried to determine whether television reinforces or refutes common stereotypes about the elderly. Their findings are mixed.
Early studies concluded that older people, particularly older women and the oldest old, were underrepresented on television in terms of their proportion in the real world. Several researchers also criticized the medium for portraying older adults negatively as more comical, stubborn, one-dimensional and sexless than other characters.
A recent examination of prime-time television showed that portrayals of older adults have improved, although some problems still exist. After analyzing 193 characters portraying older adults, Paula W. Dail reported in "The Gerontologist" in 1988 that television is responsive to our aging society and that it generally depicts older adults positively.
She attributed these findings to the dramatic rise in the elderly population and the growing recognition of this age group, which controls 50 percent of the nation's discretionary income, as an important market segment. Nevertheless, she identified three areas for improvement.
Noting that older women are portrayed as less capable than men, a finding consistent with other studies, Dail recommended educational efforts to address this issue more realistically. She also called for programming directed toward assisting families in developing positive intergenerational relationships. Finally, based on study results showing that middle-age adults are portrayed more negatively than older people, she advocated programs that address issues unique to the fiftysomething group.
How can viewers influence more accurate television portrayals of older adults? The next time you empathize with an older television character or are moved by a program's depiction of an aging issue, write the network to express your approval. Characters may be featured and themes repeated if they have demonstrated audience appeal.
If a program reinforces negative stereotypes about the elderly, tell the network that as well. It may be even more effective to complain to the program's sponsors. Advertisers often maintain hit lists of programs with which they want no association. If enough viewers object to a program, the network and producers may revamp the offending story line.
QUESTION: My doctor said I need an angioplasty because of a clogged artery. She explained the procedure, but I was so nervous I didn't understand it. Please tell me about angioplasty.
ANSWER: With angioplasty, clogged arteries are opened from inside the artery by inflating a balloon at the point of blockage. The first balloon angioplasty of a coronary artery took place in Switzerland in 1977. Since then, it has become a well-established procedure, with about 250,000 angioplasties done each year. An angioplasty generally costs about $10,000, most of which is covered by Medicare or private insurance. Angioplasty is also used to open clogged arteries in the kidney, legs and elsewhere.
Your physician may have recommended the procedure as an alternative to coronary bypass surgery, which is more risky, complicated and expensive. Be aware, however, that the balloon technique is not always possible or successful. Balloons are not effective when the blockage is total or almost total or when the plaque deposit has calcified. The most common problem, called re-stenosis, is a return of deposits to the vessels. This happens within six months in 30 percent of angioplasties. Scientists are experimenting with new types of angioplasty to make the procedure safer and more effective.
Write down your questions about the procedure and discuss these with your physician at your next visit. When you're in the hospital, the team doing the angioplasty will make sure you understand the procedure and give your informed consent to it.
Send your questions about growing older to On Aging, P.O. Box 84256, Los Angeles, CA 90073. Questions of general interest will be answered in this column; individual answers cannot be provided.