As with primary compensatory strategies, however, secondary strategies can come with costs. For instance, psychological disengagement from domains in which older adults are stereotyped to perform poorly is likely to yield underperformance in those very domains, thus reinforcing the stereotypes. Furthermore, many of the negative stereotypes of older adults fall in domains that are essential for independence and healthful living. Disengaging self-esteem from their performance in these domains may relegate older adults to premature dependence. Disengagement from the identity may undermine the collective power of older adults insofar as individuals must be identified with a group in order to engage in action on its own behalf. Additionally, group identification seems to provide a buffer against the negative mental health consequences of discrimination (Garstka, Schmitt, Branscombe, and Hummert, 2004). Lastly, the use of temporal social comparisons and social downgrading may limit individuals’ growth and personal development. Ideally, researchers, advocates, and practitioners can work in collaboration with older adults to find a balance between accurate self-views and effective self-protection from the negative impact of age stigma.
Several themes emerge from research on older adults and stigma. First, unlike many other stigmatized groups, older adults often do not think of themselves as members of the group, and, perhaps by extension, endorse negative stereotypes about aging. This is probably due to the fact that this is one of the few stigmatized groups in which individuals gradually enter over time, and the boundaries of the group are both porous and ambiguous. That is, at one point individuals are out-group members who hold negative stereotypes about the group. As time progresses, however, individuals find themselves as candidates for in-group membership, and must wrestle with whether or not they identify with the group, and whether the prevailing negative stereotypes apply to them. Perhaps as a solution to this dilemma, older adults have complex views both of themselves and of their age group, and these views incorporate both negative and positive stereotypes.
Future research is needed on the processes by which these more complex views are incorporated in individuals’ self-concepts. For example, at what period of life does this process begin? How stressful or disruptive is the process? What contextual factors shape the outcome of this process? Moreover, how do individuals negotiate the “transition” from nonstigmatized middle-aged adult to stigmatized older adult? Are individuals who are members of a stigmatized group based on some other dimension of identity (e.g., race, sexual orientation) better or less able to cope with this transition (e.g., McDougall, 1993)?