Volume 13, Number 13 March 10, 2006

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Greeting cards betray attitudes toward elderly

By David Shield

Applied Social Psychology student Shannon Ellis.

Applied Social Psychology student Shannon Ellis.

Photo by David Shield

”Fifty is just a number, the Titanic was just a boat, WWII was just a misunderstanding and Chernobyl was just a few leaky pipes.”

For most people, reading the above message on their annual birthday card might prompt a dirty look or two, maybe an elbow to the ribs, but not much else. However, a U of S graduate student says the messages we send to our aging loved ones through greeting cards are more significant, and potentially damaging, than most people suspect.

Currently in her second year of her Masters program in Applied Social Psychology, Shannon Ellis says birthday cards have a habit of betraying society’s attitudes towards growing old. Studying the content of 150 age-related birthday cards, Ellis discovered that 66.7 per cent of the cards “represented aging in a negative manner.” Co-written by the National University of Ireland’s Todd Morrison, the study appeared in last year’s issue of The International Journal of Aging and Human Development.

“The take-home message of our research wasn’t in any way to degrade or try and berate card manufacturers, or tell people not to buy birthday cards. The idea was to consider whether or not the recipient is going to view that card in the same light that you are,” she says.

Comparing her results to studies done in the U.S. in the early 1980s, Ellis was surprised that not much has changed in the world of age related birthday cards in the last 25 years. The amount of negative stereotyping hovered around the same number; and so did the areas the cards focused on – physical decline, forgetfulness, etc. Ellis’ surprise stems mainly from the fact the purportedly powerful baby boom generation is getting ready to retire. While she believes ‘boomers’ are still influential drivers of the economy, she says birthday cards may have stayed the same because younger people are traditionally the people buying them.

“Most of the time, these cards are being purchased by somebody who’s younger and given to somebody who’s older. So that person is seeing that card as being funny, but they may not be considering that the person they’re giving it to is someone who is very conscious of their aging and has issues with it.”

The study also found that cards dealing with older seniors (70-100 years) were predominantly written in the past tense, subtly projecting the notion that older seniors’ lives are basically over by this point.

“An example was, ‘Lives you’ve touched, friendships you’ve made, wisdom gained, happiness known are all reasons to celebrate.’ And they were often written in that sort of way, saying you need to live in your memories, because you have nothing left to contribute. This was rather an interesting finding that wasn’t found in any of the other research,” she says.

While Ellis admits her study, conducted in Red Deer, Alberta, was fairly small-scale, she believes a larger study in a major centre encompassing the new phenomenon of internet cards and focus groups with seniors could yield some interesting results.

And as she winds up her Masters program, Ellis says she plans on continuing her academic study of seniors and how they’re treated in society.

“Seniors are often invisible in our society, which is very sad. I don’t think it’s going to stay that way once the baby boomers get older. They are going to become very prevalent in society. They are going to be out there advocating for their rights and the rights of seniors, and as they become more noticeable and out there in society, you’re going to start seeing some changes.”


David Shield is a Saskatoon freelance writer


For more information, contact communications.office@usask.ca


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