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The Evidence: Why Perceptions of Aging Matter The SeniorScape™


A review of an article from Mather Institute on Perceptions of Aging.


Research has found that our health and well-being in our later years can well be impacted by exposure to aging stereotypes throughout our lives. For example, research has found that older adults perform worse on memory tests after they are exposed to negative age stereotypes (Hess, Auman, Colcombe, & Rahhal, 2003). This was corroborated in research that compared people living in cultures where negative age stereotypes are commonplace, as in the U.S., as compared to countries where this is not the case. A 1994 study by Levy and Langer found that older adults who lived in societies where they were exposed to negative age stereotypes did worse on memory tasks as compared with adults living in mainland China where the culture supports positive views of aging.


Oftentimes when we have an attitude or expectation of something, especially something negative, we refer to the actualization of the occurrence as a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is equally true of views on aging. Research has shown that when older adults hold the belief that they can improve or maintain their health as they age, they often experience better functional health, fewer illnesses and increased longevity as opposed to people who hold more negative expectations around ageing. , (Levy, Slade, & Kasl, 2002, Moser, Spagnoli, & Santos-Eggimann, 2011; Sargent-Cox, Anstey, & Luszcz, 2014; Wurm, Tesch-Römer, & Tomasik, 2007). These positive views also extend to social relationships whereby those who hold more positive views reported better social support and more new friendships in subsequent years (Menkin, Robles, Gruenewald, Tanner, & Seeman, 2017).


I think it’s a fair assumption, that when one holds negative attitudes about aging, they may intentionally, or unintentionally, act in ways that support that belief.


These attitudes are pervasive and no one is immune. It extends to doctors and other health care professionals, including nurses, social workers, etc. I’ve have witnessed this on several occasions. Most recently, I was present when a doctor came to interview a woman who was a new admission to a short-term rehabilitation unit of a nursing home. Her daughter was present. The doctor introduced himself to the patient who was seated in a wheelchair and her daughter who was standing nearby. Without hesitation, he turned to the woman’s daughter and immediately began asking her questions about her mother. I had just finished speaking with the patient.

She was alert, verbal, responsive, and except for a few instances where she turned to her daughter for clarification, was perfectly able to convey important and personally relevant information about herself and her condition. However, the doctor spoke to the daughter as if the mother wasn’t present, as if she was invisible or incapable of speaking up for herself. Yet the entire conversation was about her health status.


Are you aware if you’ve done something, albeit unintentionally, similar to an older parent or a loved one? If so, pause for a moment and think how you might feel if this was done to you. Maybe you’ve already been on the receiving end of such a situation, how did you feel?


Research has also found that when an older adult presents with a particular problem they are often attributed to the natural aging process resulting in fewer recommendations for preventive care. In addition, doctors may be less inclined to ask older adults about their emotional state, including depression and anxiety, as compared to queries on these topics with younger patients (Greene, Hoffman, Charon, & Adelman, 1987).


Another area of importance for older adults worthy of attention is autonomy. We may want to care and help our aging parents and loved ones, however, overprotection can be crippling and contributing to a person’s inability, rather than fostering continued self-reliance and ability. Autonomy: self-reliance, exercising one’s own powers and judgment, is a basic human need.


An impactful 1976 research study by Langer and Rodin conducted in a nursing home demonstrated the important role autonomy and personal control plays in health and well-being for older adults.

There were two groups. Each group was given a plant for their room. The first group heard an announcement by the nursing home administrator who told them they had a choice in how they cared for the plant, and that they also had choices about their own care and living environment.

The second group was told the staff was responsible for providing, and making decisions, about their care as well as caring for the plant.

The results bear out what has been proven time and time again. Residents who had autonomy to make choices about their living environment and had responsibility for caring for the plant had greater well-being, activity levels, alertness, and social engagement as compared to the group where others responsible for their care and for the care of the plant.

This highlights the importance of living environments that foster autonomy, independence, freedom of choice and purpose for older adults; whether a person remains in their own home, transitions to an assisted living environment or, is in need of more advanced levels of care in a nursing home. Autonomy is essential in order for them to achieve and foster their highest level of health and well-being.

We must be mindful of our attitudes about aging and about older adults. We must recognize that regardless of a person’s current physical or cognitive state, each one of us needs a sense of purpose and has basic human needs: Purpose, Autonomy, and Self-Actualization.


As a society, our attitude about aging is likely at the root cause of the reduced value we place on older adults, which leads to living environments that are lacking in meeting these basic human needs. We must strive to ensure that we create desirable living environments where persons can achieve their highest potential as they advance in years, even as they become frail and infirm.


How can we raise awareness, understanding, and move the needle on the societal view of older adults? We must shed our own negative attitudes and beliefs that have been conditioned throughout our lives. These are like shackles that bind us to self-destructive beliefs.


Is there anything you can to change your attitude toward older adults or to change your attitude about your own aging? Follow openlygray.org


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Phyllis@phyllisaymanassociates.com

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