'Old' categorization based on activities, not age

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New research shows that caregivers for non-institutionalized elderly consumers view them as "old" when they can't perform everyday consumption tasks on their own — not because of their age.

The study, published  in the Journal of Consumer Research, used in-depth interviews with people in their late 80s and their families and paid caregivers.

"Consumption activities such as shopping, preparing meals, doing housework, going to the doctor, taking medications, and managing money serve as a means of identifying someone as old and a venue for working through conflicts that arise when older consumers who do not identify as old are treated as an 'old person' by family members and service providers," wrote authors Michelle Barnhart, Ph.D., Oregon State University, and Lisa Peñaloza, Ph.D., Bordeaux Management School.

Elderly consumers, who didn't accept being treated as old, negotiated with caregivers through consumption activities, arguments or activity performance. Other strategies made caregivers perform activities in a way more suited to the elderly person or covertly excluded younger caregivers from activities.

"Friends and family members who provide assistance to older consumers should consider the ways they treat them as unaware, confused, dependent, at-risk, or any of the other devalued characteristics that American society commonly associates with old people,” the authors wrote. “By treating older people as valued adults, they can provide needed assistance while decreasing their chances of generating conflict by threatening the older consumer's identity."

More than 10 million Americans provide assistance to the elderly, and their care has grown into a $260 billion a year business. These numbers are projected to increase dramatically — Americans aged 85 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population.