The United States population is aging in record numbers, with adults over the age of 85 comprising the fastest growing segment of the elderly population (Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics, 2016). Increased longevity presents both possibility and challenge. In general, U.S. adults are growing older with better health, greater engagement, and more resources than prior generations, even as advancing years bring a higher likelihood of chronic ailments, diminished capacity, and potential disability (Achenbaum, 2005). Recently surveyed older adults reported increased participation in part-time employment, travel, and volunteerism during what all but 7% deem a satisfying retirement (National Institute on Aging, 2015). Family help and public programs keep older people in the community, and more than half of adults over the age of 85 live in their own home (National Institute on Aging, 2015). In general, older adults experience perceived difficulties of aging (e.g., loneliness, memory loss, inability to drive, and end to sexual activity) at far lower levels than younger adults expect to encounter when they grow old (Taylor, 2009). To be sure, some respondents reported problems related to their advancing age; however, these problems were not shared equally by all groups of older adults, and only 5% of adults over the age of 75 believe their lives turned out worse than they expected (Taylor, 2009). Throughout this review, we use the term older adults to refer generally to people age 65 or older. This term is widely recognized (e.g., Avers et al., 2011; Graham, 2012; Moyer, 2014) and preferred to the word elderly, which calls forth stereotypes of decline.
While experiences of aging have favorably shifted over the years, collective generalizations about aging have not. Prevailing assumptions of later life as a uniform time of decline continue to perpetuate a widespread climate of ageism that shapes intergenerational beliefs, values, behaviors, and policies (Levy & Macdonald, 2016; Nussbaum, Pitts, Huber, Raup Krieger, & Ohs, 2005). Visible markers of an aging body trigger and reinforce societal stereotypes, while residence in age-related communities, ranging from nursing homes for the frail to retirement villages for the independent, positions age as a social border that separates, silences, and excludes older individuals from society at large (Morris, 1998). Overemphasis on "old" as a category fuels anti-aging consumerism and threatens the well-being of older adults who conform to ageist stereotypes in a form of self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, research shows that people who subscribe to negative perceptions of aging may seek minimal healthcare or positive social support as they grow old, settling instead for a diminished quality of life that is consistent with their lowered expectations (Harwood, 2007; O'Hanlon & Coleman, 2004). Appreciating and accommodating the nuanced realities of later life thus requires a shift in perspective across all age groups.
Because aging is a biological process that has been socially constructed as a problem, communication plays a central role in our experiences of it. Communication scholars have long recognized that people rely on age-related stereotypes when meeting and interacting with others based on...