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Successful Aging: More on the natural benefits of good-natured humor

This week we are addressing the second part of N.S.’s question about humor. She wrote, “When is a joke about aging funny and when is it insulting?”

The line between humor and insult can be a bit blurry. Add to that one’s personal perspective and sensitivities and that line becomes even less clear.

Yet we know subtle negative stereotypes of aging continue to be portrayed in the media, advertising and entertainment. The question remains as to whether humor reinforces negative stereotypes of aging…or not?

Dissecting and analyzing humor can be counterproductive by stripping a funny situation to a case analysis – which isn’t funny. So please read this without losing your sense of humor. Consider it a brief “anatomy of humor and aging” that should not detract from one of the pleasures of life – laughter.

Believe it or not, aging and humor is an area of scientific inquiry. Erdman B. Palmore, Professor Emeritus of Medical Sociology at Duke University, studied attitudes towards aging through humor.

He analyzed more than 250 jokes about aging and classified them according to positive or negative views of older people. He concluded that more than half of the jokes he studied reflected negative views of aging or elders; only one quarter were clearly positive.

Others who have examined jokes, cartoons and birthday cards have reached the same conclusion. That is, most humor reflects or supports negative attitudes toward aging, and positive humor is rare.

Why the negative approach? Palmore suggests that denial provides the basis of much humor. One of the most famous was Jack Benny’s assertion that he was only 39….for decades. (Jack Benny was very funny!) Palmore found that denying you are old may have little to do with your chronological age. Rather, it is a denial of the commonly accepted stereotypes of aging.

Based on the jokes listed in Palmore’s book, “Ageism: Negative and Positive” (Springer Publishing, N.Y.), here are two examples he cites as negative humor.

• Focus on appearance: “An old lady in a nursing home decided to streak down the hall and through the dining room. One man asks another, ‘What did she have on?’ Answer, ‘I don’t know, but whatever it was, it sure was wrinkled.’”

• Focus on longevity: “A host greets an 80-year-old visitor: ‘We’re glad to have you here.’ The visitor says, ‘At my age I’m glad to be anywhere,’ he responded.”

Here are two that focus on positive humor:

• Focus on single women: “An old maid is a woman who has missed the opportunity of getting a divorce.”

• Focus on sexuality: “A doctor tells his 70-year old patient that she is pregnant. She calls her 80-year old husband and says, ‘Honey, I’m pregnant!’ “The husband cautiously says, ‘Who is calling?’”

Birthday cards often convey what people fear most about aging — possible physical and mental decline. Here are a few examples:

• “You know you are getting older when it takes twice as long to look half as good.”

• “Your secrets are safe with your friends because they can’t remember them either.”

• “You know you are getting older when your back goes out more than you do.”

• “We’re getting close to the age where we call our friends sweetie, honey and dearie because we can’t remember their names.”

Here’s a positive one: “Girlfriend – when we’re older we’re going to be SOB’s – spectacular older babes.”

Birthday cards celebrating a 100 years affirm the positive aspect of reaching such a milestone. Here’s an example:

• “100 years old and you are simply…a wonderful woman, a faithful friend, a generous spirit, a charming soul, a loyal confidant, a compassionate being, a friendly face, a cheerful smile and a fun personality. A truly special person…may your birthday be as wonderful as you.”

Although humor can make ageism socially acceptable, it doesn’t hurt to occasionally laugh at ourselves.

N.S., from my perspective, there is no single answer to your question. Hopefully we will have more jokes and birthday cards with positive messages about aging. The question is, “Will folks find “age friendly” jokes funny and will they buy “age friendly” birthday cards?

Thank you for your good question. Remember to embrace the funny side of life. It feels good and is good for us.

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