Updated: Nov 6
Our perceptions about aging begin from the time we are young and are influenced throughout our lives through personal experiences, cultural and societal representations.
Numerous studies have found that exposure to age stereotypes affect older adults in a variety of ways.
A 2012 study by B.A. Meisner found that scores on memory tests were lower after older adults were exposed to negative age stereotypes. This was corroborated from earlier studies which found that in cultures where negative stereotypes about older adults were common, as they are in the United States, older adults performed worse when compared with cultures (i.e., China) that represented older adults and aging in a more positive light. (1994 article by Levy and Langer)
As with other beliefs, positive and negative views about aging can also create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Numerous studies have been conducted on this topic. One example from the literature by Sargent-Cox, Anstey, & Luszcz,2014, found that more positive view of aging which includes thinking that older adults can improve or maintain their health as they age, are associated with better health outcomes, fewer illnesses, and grater longevity compared to people who hold more negative beliefs about aging. In addition, as reported in the 2017 article by Menkin, et.al. not only did a person’s perception of aging impact their own health, but it found that those adults with a positive attitude towards aging had better social support and tended to make more new friendships in subsequent years. Studies have also suggested that greater loneliness is associated with a greater likelihood of being physically inactive two to three years later and recent research found that besides loneliness, social isolation is associated with less daily physical activity and a more sedentary lifestyle for older adults.
Beyond our own perceptions about aging, those who hold negative beliefs about older adults tend to disregard them. Though they may not be aware of their unintentional actions, they may talk around or about older adults as if they are not there. I have heard this complete from many older adults and have witnessed it, especially in health care settings. This is especially common when the older adults have significant cognitive loss. It is a complete misconception to think that a person with cognitive impairment is unaware or does not know what is going on. I’ve had many nursing home residents voice, “they think I don’t know they are talking about me but I do. I wish they would just talk to me like I’m a person.”
People may alter their speech pattern to accommodate an older person who they assume must have hearing loss or cognitive impairment, this is most often seen by reducing speech rate, using simple words and shorter sentences, Once the older adult senses this, it immediately reinforces the negative aging stereotype and has the potential to affect a person’s self-esteem and impact their willingness to socially interact moving forward.
Health care professionals, including doctors, nurses, social workers, etc. are not immune from falling into the negative aging-attitude trap. Doctors have been found to mistakenly attribute medical problems to the “natural aging process” and may be less likely to recommend preventive care to older adults. A study as far back as 1987 by Greene, Hoffman, Charon & Adelman, found that doctors were less likely to question older patents about psychosocial topics, including depression and anxiety. In addition, a 2013 study of over 30,000 middle age and older adults diagnosed with arthritis found that physicians may be less likely to recommend exercise to older adults as a means of managing this condition rather than to those age 45 to 64. The recommendation for lower incomed older adults was even less.
In addition, negative perceptions of older adults leads to over protection and increased dependence and helplessness. Conversely, positive perceptions of aging lead to autonomy and continued independence.
What are the solutions to counteract ageist attitudes and beliefs?
Be honest with yourself about what your thoughts and words. This includes what you think and say about yourself, as well as others. Some common phrases associated with aging are:
I’m an old crow
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks
You look good for your age
You don’t look like you’re ______
You are ____, and you still like to____?
He’s an old geezer
Over the hill
You’re still working?
When are you going to retire?
You have a smartphone?
60 is the new 40
He or she is _____ but is still sharp as a tack
Be aware of what others are saying in your family and your social circle. Listen carefully; ensure you are not laughing along. If you’re not laughing, bur that silent, remember that silence can connotes tacit approval or agreement. As with other stereotypes and prejudices, not voicing objection or correcting the prevailing view only serves to continue negative attitudes. Becoming aware includes becoming aware of yourself, as well as others.
Become vocal and object to, and correct, what you see and hear that reflects ageist attitudes or beliefs.
Finally, wherever you are on your age journey, consider taking stock of your lifestyle. Are you making conscious choices and engaging in activities which serve you well?
If not, what can you do that….
§ can have a beneficial effect on your own well-being;
§ dispel the prevailing view about what you can and cannot do, and
§ shift ageist beliefs by you towards you, and
§ by others towards you and others.
o programs you can join,
o habits you can change,
o attitudes you can embrace,
o connections you can make.
Embracing the possibilities builds confidence, ultimately alters perceptions about aging and promotes a more positive outlook on one’s overall ability.
Finally, it’s worth remembering that ageist attitudes are rooted in earlier ages. How many times have you heard someone turning thirty or forty dread reaching that milestone? I’ve heard younger adults say, “I’m getting up there”, or “I’m getting old”. Rather than dread, getting up there should imply achievement, experience, wisdom. Let’s encourage children from the earliest of ages to embrace their journey as an “evolving elder” towards their elderhood years.
“In the midst of winter, I found there was within me an invincible summer”
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