Aging. Myths and Realities.
Part 1. An Introduction.
While it’s a debatable point, many believe that life and therefore aging begins at the moment of conception. What is not debatable however, is that the aging process continues over a lifetime. Each individual experiences the process in different ways depending on variables such as gender, culture, education geographical location environment and of course the culmination of life’s events and circumstances.
Improvements in public health care, living conditions, income, and the control of infectious diseases during the first half of the 20th century were important factors in determining life expectancy, while the second half yielded an increase in health technology leading to the development of antibiotics and wide spread immunization. As a result, people are now more likely to die of diseases associated with living longer such as stroke or heart disease rather than the infectious diseases of childhood.
Here in Australia, the cohort of people born since 1995 may live longer than previous cohorts as they have received the most benefit from lower child mortality rates. Older people will make up a larger proportion of the population and there is little doubt that more people will be seeing a hundred years of life or more by the mid 2050’s.
Because of overseas migration to Australia during the period 1995 to 2015 older people from non-English speaking countries will comprise around 66% of the older population compared with 23% of people born in Australia for that age group.
The future old people in most western societies will be healthier, wealthier and posses a higher education with many funding their own retirement. The huge contribution they are now making to society can no longer be under estimated or under valued. It’s always been a common saying that you are only as old as you feel and many researchers are finding that those aged over 60 are far less accepting as being seen and described as “old” then the preceding generation.
Because an awareness of aging has been strongly ingrained in our societies, the majority of people are well aware of the kinds of behavior expected at a certain age. But this would not be a problem if these behavioral expectations did not result in the accepted stereotypes relating to older people, which have led to discrimination simply on the basis of age.
Body Language among the Aged
Body language, the way we talk, the way we clothe ourselves, even the way we exercise and the recreation and sports we undertake may indicate “age appropriate” behavior. After all we make sense of age through the recognition of significant milestone such as birthdays and anniversaries.
Rather than welcoming the positive changes that have led to an expected longer life span, many in society see the increase in the number of older people as being a concern and a drain on heath services and the economy.
It’s unfortunate that the word “old” is often used as an insult prefaced by the words “silly” or “stupid” and the vocabulary used to describe older generations fails to account for the huge diversity and differences between people. Media portrayals of old age in terms of frailty, senility, poverty, powerlessness and loneliness tend to reinforce the stereotype perceptions. The media is not helping either by sending mixed messages referring to and advertising anti-aging products with stories and literature which focus on looking younger and being healthier in order to live a longer life.
Preconceived “OLD” Stereotypes
Some older people do accept and adopt the negative images attributed to them and become subconsciously aware of having to conform to the expectations of certain elements of society and “act their age.” At the other end of the spectrum many older people revel in challenging stereotypes and seeing older age as an opportunity to undertake new ventures and or indeed take on ventures long with held because of social or family pressure brought on by society’s expectations.Some stereotypes even focus on positive aspects of age such as the kindness and wisdom of older people and these views can be equally unrealistic. Not all old people are wise and kind! Overall, most age stereotypes seem to be negative, and can even be accepted quite inaccurately by some ill-informed health care professionals.
“Negative stereotypes about older adults abound – they are sickly, frail, forgetful, unattractive, dependent, or otherwise incompetent. Such stereo types can lead to ageism or prejudice against elderly people. Most elderly adults have internalized these negative views but believe that they apply to ‘other older adults’ and not to themselves”
Sigelman. CK and EA Rider. Life span Human Development. 5th ed. 2006 Australia: Thomas.
Currently, the myths of aging are associated with general perceptions about being old such as older people being in poor health, ill or disabled; having a lack of mental sharpness; failed memory; senile; being sad; depressed; lonely; grouchy; sexless; boring; all the same; lacking vitality and vigor and following inevitable decline; being unable to learn or change and being unproductive.
Myths about older people are based on a lack of knowledge about aging and when they are used in the media or even in professional literature they support negative attitudes which lead to age discrimination.
As the older population grows and the baby boomers begin approaching the traditional retirement age of 65 years, new myths are emerging. In the pages which follow I will attempt to provide, statistical information, research findings together with the opinions of older people themselves (including myself approaching 62 years) in the hope that others will add and comment in order to provide an understanding of how negative perceptions about aging can be challenged.
“The complete life, the complete pattern includes old age as well as youth and maturity. The beauty of the morning and the radiance of noon are good, but it would be a very silly person who drew the curtains and turned on the light in order to shut out the tranquility of the evening. Old age has its pleasures, which, although different, are not less than the pleasures of youth”
W Somerset. (1874-1965) British novelist and playwright.
Part 2. Older People’s Perceptions.
When do people become old?Is it related to a number of years or to other traits? An Australian study asked people aged between 65 and 89 years of age, about their perceptions of age and found that they thought of oldness as a state of being rather than a particular number of years. A person thinks they or someone else is old if they are showing certain negative characteristics. Oldness was described as:
“… not trying, withdrawn, isolated, irritating, self-oriented, living outside the mainstream, unattractive, uninteresting, frail, senile, silly, over the hill, narrow-minded, a burden, lonely, vulnerable, dowdy, and unproductive”
Minichieilo, V., J. Browne, and H. Kendig, Perceptions and consequences of ageism: views of older people. Ageing & Society, 2000.
Most of these characteristics could apply to a person of any age. Older people from the community believe that myths of aging are generalizations and can apply to any age group. Older people from the Indigenous community believe that everyone is an individual and develops differently. Personally I found the same perceptions exist in Asian countries.
Men seem to carry age better than women, but old age begins earlier because of their reduced life expectancy. People from culturally and linguistically diverse communities say that cultural background makes an enormous difference. Some people are ‘old’ at 40, while others are energetic and active at 80.
There is no way to stop the decline of the physical systems of the body that begins in early adulthood, but the changes are so gradual that people adjust to them over their lifespan. Research has found that those people who understand the physical, social and psychological changes that occur with aging are likely to have high levels of life satisfaction. Importantly, older people do not expect to have the same level of physical fitness as in younger years but can still feel satisfied about their health.
Satisfaction with life is something that people can experience regardless of their health status and is a characteristic that tends to apply equally to all age groups with slight increases for older people. An interesting finding is that widows, mainly older women, tend to experience higher than average well being in spite of lower than normal health satisfaction.
The Triple A (Australian Active Aging) survey of people aged 50 years and older found that 80 per cent reported being happy and in good health. They had positive social relationships and were actively engaged with others and the community. Around 60 per cent were involved in a group activity of some kind, and were interested in using their abilities and skills to help others.
“Being active keeps you feeling young. Learning something new gives meaning to the day. Mentoring younger people is fulfilling. Seeing others successful and achieving their goals is my aim in life”
Triple A Survey respondent cited in Dimensions
A sense of optimism – feeling that life is ‘getting better’ – can continue to age 75 years and beyond, and it is thought that positive feelings can reduce a person’s susceptibility to accidents and disease and therefore increase longevity. Some older people do seem to accept negative stereotypes, yet they can improve their chances of keeping their self esteem well into late old age if they avoid blaming their difficulties simply on old age. Many older people challenge the pessimistic view of aging:
“If we want a healthier and less stereotypical old age, then we need to stop seeing age as the enemy and start taking better care of ourselves while demanding that the media grows up from their perpetual adolescence”
Corbin, D.E., Health and Sexual Media Content, in Mass Media, on Aging Population, and the Baby Boomers, M.L. Hill and J.H. Lipschultz, Editors. 2005, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: Marwah, New Jersey.
Personality is something that does remain stable throughout life, and we can expect older people’s interests, values and opinions to remain consistent, even though their life directions may change. Genuine respect for older people means seeing them as they really are’, in fact, in terms of personality, ‘they are not much different from any other adults’.
“… in clinging to stereotypes, we overlook the advantages of having larger numbers than ever before of older people rich in skills and life experience that they can, and do, contribute not only to the economy but also to their families and communities”
Welcome Trust, Ageing: Can We Stop the Clock? WelcomeFocus, 2006.
“… stereotypes are useful for camouflaging the social arrangements which we impose upon the aged members of our society. As the unspoken assumptions upon which ‘scientific’ theories of aging are constructed, they become doHazan, H., The cultural trap: The language of images, in Ageing and Everyday Life, J.F. Gubrium and J.A. Holstein, Editors. 2000, Blackwell: Maiden, Massachusetts.ubly dangerous, being mindfully or inadvertently employed to determine the fate of fellow human beings”
Older people report seeing some changes for the better in media depictions of ageing, and while this is very encouraging, some myths and misinformation about older people still persist in the wider community.