Hello Oprah - An Elder Advocate's Appeal

The last time Oprah Winfrey was mentioned on my blog was the occasion of the launch of her magazine O in 2005. With the exception of single, short paragraphs from Maya Angelou and Linda Ellerbee who had some wise words about growing old, the 320 pages of that first issue overflowed with stories and advertisements promoting youth and beauty reinforcing, as I wrote in 2005, “our ageist culture’s demand to put a bag over our heads when the first wrinkle appears.”

Nothing has changed in the intervening years. In under two minutes on the oprah.com website, I collected the following headlines and phrases:

  • Reverse the aging process
  • Turn back time
  • Fighting the major agers
  • How to be 10 years younger
  • How antioxidents stop the aging process (emphasis added)
  • How to turn back time
  • Dr. Oz and Dr. Michael Roizen are back with more from their book YOU: Staying Young. Dr. Oz has said it's within your power to now find out how to do it!

For years, those two physicians have been regulars on Oprah's television show promoting youth as the gold standard of life, and Oprah herself is the poster girl for ageism; her advocacy of all things anti-aging translates directly into disrespect for elders.

Oprah's is a powerful voice for whatever she decides to publicize. Her television program, The Oprah Winfrey Show, is one of the most popular on television, regularly appearing in the No. 4 position of highest-rated syndicated shows. For better or worse, when Oprah speaks, millions listen. For elders, it is worse.

Geriatrician Bill Thomas, on the other hand, is the best thing to happen to elders in years. He created the Eden Alternative which, since 1991, has labored to improve the culture and environment of long-term care facilities worldwide. The Green House Project he developed is creating group homes for elders that radically change the institutional care of the past by emphasizing the dignity and emotional well-being of residents.

Dr. Thomas's extraordinary book, What Are Old People For? has been one of my top two reference bibles for this blog since it was published in 2004. (Oprah should recommend it to her book club.) And somehow in his busy schedule, he finds time to blog almost every day on elder issues at Changing Aging.

Now, Dr. Thomas has created an open-letter video to Oprah Winfrey titled Hello Oprah in which he makes a personal appeal to the talk-show host to give elders equal camera time with youth. Take a look: [2:45 minutes]

It is true, what Dr. Thomas says, that television producers think elder topics are a ratings killer and – having been a television producer myself for many years – I know they are slow to keep up with trends outside the boundaries of their target audience.

So the producers apparently haven't noticed that the population is rapidly aging, that the number of young people are decreasing in proportion to the number of elders. And that younger people spend more time with their computers, iPhones and MySpace than with television, while elders in large numbers stick with TV.

Oprah's television audience is primarily female and older than 55. According to Quantcast, her online readership at oprah.com is mainly older women too. Yet what Oprah's television show offers this audience is a demeaning, prejudicial view of aging, urging them repeatedly to do everything possible to deny their age.

Oprah's influence is vast. Her recommendations sell millions of books and her endorsement of candidate Barack Obama last year was as big an event as the candidacy itself. Imagine, then, if Oprah – who at 55 is on the cusp of elderhood herself - paid less attention to looking young forever and adopted a positive attitude toward aging and elders. The impact would be huge and go a long way toward changing the attitude of the culture at large. Oprah Winfrey is that powerful.

But first we need to persuade Oprah and every one of you reading this post can help Dr. Thomas get her attention. Here's how:

  • If you have a blog, post Dr. Thomas's video, make your own appeal to Oprah to listen to him and urge your readers to do so too.
  • If you don't have a blog, watch the video at YouTube to boost the viewer numbers.
  • Get your friends, neighbors and relatives to watch the video at YouTube.
  • Flood Oprah's show producers with email including a link to Dr. Thomas's YouTube video and request that he appear on her program. You can email them here.
  • Include young relatives and friends in all the above too. When elders are respected, people of all ages benefit.

If enough of us do these things and keep up the pressure, Oprah's producers will notice. This is our chance to help make a difference on a big scale in how elders are perceived. And we can have no better advocate than Dr. Bill Thomas.

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