Do White And Black Older Adults Perceive Social Status Differently?

Jan 9, 2017

David Smith, 70, is Durham's Senior Holiday King and Margaret Brown Neely, 87, is the Queen.
Credit Durham Parks and Recreation

End of the year and New Year holiday events were popular across the Triangle in recent weeks, but one of the biggest parties was the senior holiday party in Durham. The event sells out every year and is mostly attended by African Americans, despite the area’s diverse population, according to the city's parks and recreation officials. The party is an example that may lend credibility to new research on “social status” and race.

At the recent senior holiday party in Durham, many participants wore gowns, tuxedos and some couples came in matching red and white outfits. There was even a senior king and queen at the event, that was more like a gala.

“It is my great pleasure to announce the 2016 DPR King, Mr. David Smith!” said announcer, Michael Honeycutt.

David Smith was all smiles as he strutted into the ballroom, wearing a sash bearing his new title. The 70-year-old retired from the New York transit department before moving to Durham.

“I am having a wonderful time in my old senior years," laughed Smith.

Smith said he thinks he was chosen as the parks and rec department’s senior holiday king because of all the time he spends at the Holton Career and Resource Center, playing bingo and exercising twice a week.

“It’s fun time now, I enjoy myself now more than when I was younger and I didn’t have anything, living foot to mouth. Now I am able to spend my son’s inheritance a little bit!” said Smith.

Does race affect how older adults perceive social status?

Smith’s life could help explain new research out of the Aging Center at Columbia University in New York. Researchers wanted to know if there is a difference between how white and black older adults perceive social status and self-esteem.

Taylar Peoples, a graduate student in the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia, worked on the survey.

“What we found, which was very interesting, is that black older adults didn’t have a significant difference in social status across life span," said Peoples, during a poster presentation at the 2016 Gerontological Society of America (GSA) Annual Scientific Meeting in New Orleans. The project is titled, "Patterns of Age-related Attitudes Across the Life Span: Differences Amongst Racial Groups."

But Peoples said after middle age, there was a significant status drop for white older adults. Peoples said while research to explain why is ongoing, researchers have made some educated guesses.

“The white, middle-age group, which is like the most privileged group in the United States, and how becoming an older adult can also bring along age discrimination," said Peoples. "Or you are no longer working and you have a sudden drop in income or wealth and things like that and how that can be a factor in the sudden drop of social status."

Hundreds of people attend the Durham Parks and Rec annual Senior Holiday Party.
Credit Durham Parks and Recreation

Peoples said black, older adults have likely experienced discrimination all of their lives. And many, like the king of the senior holiday party, have found happiness in growing old, not working and living month to month, and spending some of their children's inheritance on themselves.

A packed house for Durham senior party

In 2015, about 700 mature folks attended the annual holiday party. A few weeks ago, 800 people packed the house, according to Cynthia Booth, spokesperson for Durham Parks and Rec.

Booth said the department is aware mostly African Americans attend the event, and organizers will continue to try to diversify.

“It’s something that we are cognizant of and we really try to reach out to a broad audience to make sure that all feel welcome and inclusive, because as you know the City of Durham is a very diverse city," said Booth.

One year, parks and rec hired a big band to play. Even a mariachi band. Now that could lift spirits.

This story was produced with support from New America Media, the Gerontological Society of America and the Silver Century Foundation.