Saturday, April 10, 2010

5 Stereotypes About Aging (That Just Aren't True)

When Americans think about old age, we tend to predict a slowdown, picturing ourselves in rocking chairs or perhaps in front of the television. Members of the Tarahumara indigenous society in Mexico, on the other hand, believe that they gain strength as they age -- and in their 60s remain able to run hundreds of miles while playing a long-distance version of a kickball game [source: Martinez]. The lesson? The way we view the aging process may very well influence how we ourselves age.

The Roman philosopher Seneca considered aging to be a disease, while writers of the era such as Virgil and Juvenal outright ridiculed old age. That may have made aging an even more bitter pill to swallow for the average aging Roman, since researchers have linked negative perceptions of the elderly -- among the elderly -- in contemporary times with watching television, which often depicts old people in a bad or ridiculous light. Too bad, since another study showed that people over 50 who had negative views of aging lived seven years fewer than people with positive views of aging [source: Peri].

Some of the effects we associate with old age, such as congitive decline, aren't even necessarily true. For example, tests show that the more physical activity and mental stimulation we seek out and receive, no matter what our age, the better off our brains are -- and that holds true for another species as well: dogs. Older canines responded in the same fashion as humans, testing higher on cognitive tests when they received regular mental stimulation and social interaction with other dogs [source: National Institute on Aging].

Keep reading to see what other stereotypes should go to the dogs.

5: All Old People Are the Same

One stereotype held by people of many cultures -- even subconsciously -- is that all old people are basically the same. Aging is often viewed as a distinct life change, in which we are all one way (young, at least), and then at some point we "switch over" and become a large, homogeneous group: the elderly.

Most people stay relatively the same throughout their lives, however. Beliefs may shift and change, but personality generally remains constant. While it's easy to lump all older adults into one large category, when we look around at our own lives and our peers, we see many differences -- both large and small -- between ourselves and others. The odds aren't great that when all these different people turn 65 (or 70 or 80), they'll suddenly begin sharing interests and personality traits.

Going hand in hand with the presumption that all older people are all alike is the thought that all old people are basically helpless children. Sure, physical mobility decreases as we age -- so does earning capacity and the ability to remain fully independent. But if you don't like spending your days at a folding table working on simple, oversized puzzles, you're probably still not going to like it when you're older. You'll also very likely maintain your distaste of being spoken to as if you're a small child.

4: Only the Young Believe Stereotypes About the Old

It doesn't take much time in front of the television to learn plenty about the aging: All of them are feeble, forgetful, cranky and confused. This isn't true, of course, but it's the message presented in much of the media.

This negative stereotyping doesn't only give young people a poor image of the aging -- it affects the aging, too. Studies have shown there's a link between the amount of television watched by the aging and their own views on aging: The more TV older adults watch, the worse they view their own peer group [source: Donlon].

The stereotype of the forgetful senior is taken to heart more by seniors than by younger age groups, in fact -- the less a senior buys into that stereotype, the better he or she is at memory recall. You'd think that seniors who have good memories do best at memory games, but that's actually not true. It turns out that when we think of memory as a skill that can be developed, rather than an innate talent, we put more effort into trying to remember something, perhaps by using a mnemonic technique such as image association or rhyming. But if we believe memory is a fixed trait that can't be improved upon, we don't try as hard to remember in the first place, and score lower on memory tests as a result.

3: Less-industrialized Societies Treat the Elderly Better

One common belief held by industrialized societies is that cultures found in less developed parts of the world treat their elderly with reverence and respect. But cultures with harsh climates or living conditions actually provide less care for older adults who are disabled or have dementia [source: Holmes]. The usefulness of the elderly individual plays an integral role in this, as does the status of the civilization as nomadic and hunter/gatherer (more likely to withhold care, or even to expedite death of the infirm) or agricultural and sedentary (more likely to extend care).

While contemporary Americans agonize over the decision of whether to move an older relation into a retirement home, this isn't a new phenomenon. Borrowing from British culture, the United States in the 19th century had an extensive system of poorhouses that housed the indigent as well as the infirm, orphans and the mentally ill. These were eventually replaced by more specialized institutions (homeless shelters, retirement homes and orphanages).

Studies have shown that older Americans in the 18th century weren't held in higher esteem than they are now [source: Thorson]. The high value Americans generally place on youth may have its origins in that century, for two reasons: The children of immigrants advanced more by adopting new customs and placing value on adaptability over tradition, and rising industrialization forced older workers out of the workplace earlier as they were replaced by machines and an increasingly younger workforce.

2: The Aging Should Leave the Planning to Others

You've probably heard old people being compared to infants. In cases of extreme decline, such as with dementia or Alzheimer's, this comparison can hold some truth. But with most of the over-60 crowd, the comparison is insulting.

In the minds of many people, as soon as someone turns 60 or so, he or she can't be trusted with making even basic decisions. In fact, perhaps he or she would be happier if the kids took care of everything! But while there are no doubt a number of people who have simply bided their time until the day they could use old age as an excuse to cajole others into doing their bidding, most aging adults prefer autonomy.

Studies have shown that when the aging are removed from decisions regarding their own health care or services, they are less likely to benefit from -- or even take advantage of -- these services [source: Medical News Today]. This shouldn't come as a surprise: Any group that gets cut out of decision-making processes that affect that group is likely to feel alienated and disrespected, and the aging are no different.

It would seem more natural to assume that as people gets older, they become more knowledgeable and capable, but our perceptions often veer in the other direction. What remains to be seen is whether or not those who currently make decisions affecting the well-being of the aging will readily surrender the decision-making role once they themselves join the ranks of the aging.

1: Suicide Among the Elderly is Always Frowned Upon (Well I did not write the article and I am not going to tell you how to feel, but I am against suicide. Let me just say a one hour visit per week in most cases would solve this problem.)

Western culture, among others, seems to value the pursuit of life extension, even when doing so doesn't hold hope for a dying person's recovery (for instance, resuscitating a 90-year-old with severe heart disease). While suicide may be viewed strongly as a bad thing, a person nearing the end of life who faces solitude, sickness and poverty for whatever weeks or months may remain could feel quite differently about the subject. Nearly one in eight Americans is over the age of 65, but this same population is responsible for nearly one out of every five suicides [source: Ochshorn].

Suicide rates and cultural beliefs about the practice vary around the world. Hungary and Finland have high rates of suicide, while Mexico and the Netherlands have comparatively low rates (the U.S. is somewhere in the middle). The Japanese have historically been somewhat nonjudgmental about the act, especially when it's performed in the face of dishonor or disgrace. The Inuit culture, spread throughout Alaska, Canada and Greenland, is more conciliatory toward elder suicide, and Inuit suicide rates are up to four times higher than other cultures within the same regions [source: Leenaars].

This isn't a new thing -- a 12th-century French Christian sect known as the Cathars was known for its practice of ritual suicide among the elderly, who would cease eating and drinking, expose themselves to extreme cold and will themselves to die.

Interested in more facts about old age? There are links to more HSW articles on the next page.

by Tom Scheve

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