Don't Call Me an Old Lady!

Age is Only a Number!

When you hear that a person is elderly, a senior citizen, or an old person, does an image like this come to mind?

In truth, the age at which a person is considered “elderly” depends on what you read. The Social Security Administration, who determines eligibility for benefits, says “elderly” is 65+. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines elderly as "being past middle age." Senior Living.org states

In America, one researcher found that you are considered old at 70 to 71 years of age for men and 72 to 73 for women. Now, however, with an unexpected boom in people over the age of 65, you are considered old when you reach the age of 70.

The World Health Organization believes that most developed world countries characterize old age starting at 60 years and above. However, the definition isn’t adaptable to places like Africa, where the more traditional definition of an elderly person begins between the ages of 50 and 65.

The age of a senior citizen varies as well. According to Medicare, a senior is 65 years old or older. Yet, Social Security benefits are eligible for seniors starting at 62, even though the Social Security Office reports that 67 is the age of retirement for those born after 1960.

If you are 55 and go to McDonald’s you can get a senior discount. Being a senior citizen is not based on a specific age.

While, the most common age for retirement is 65, an increasing number of senior citizens are working after that, so retirement can’t be a key factor. It’s probably safe to say, though, that after age 65, people are considered seniors, regardless of their work status.

So there is room for confusion.

It also depends on who you talk to. If you ask teenagers, they might describe people who are 50 as ancient. If you ask 50-year-olds, they might say a person who is 80 is old. Yet, if you ask 80-year-olds, they might disagree.

I am an 82-year-old woman with ambitions, a life to live, and a plan for the future. That image and those definitions do not describe me. 

Douglas La Beir PhD, Director of the Center for Progressive Development, asks important questions:

“What underlies and fuels the negative attitudes about getting older to begin with? What are the cultural, social and other forces at play in our society that cast a negative expectation about aging? Those are the issues that don't receive enough attention, in my view. They concern socially conditioned values, beliefs, and expectations that impact peoples' sense of what they are living and working for; their overall purpose of life.”

In this article, I want to look at the role ageism, myths, and a positive attitude play in maintaining those attitudes. So, let’s explore each briefly as they relate to aging well.

Ageism

Ageism refers to the stereotypes (how we think), prejudice (how we feel) and discrimination (how we act) towards others or oneself based on age. Since Robert N.Butler, M.D. coined the term in 1969, ageism can be found in a variety of ways from the workplace to the doctor’s office.  

Ashton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, describes ageism, so well. Take a few minutes to listen to her Ted talk.

The Changing Age Website names four basic responses to discrimination; acceptance, denial, avoidance, and reform. I have never been able to accept discrimination. Denial and avoidance didn’t work so well, either. So, I chose reform - hence this newsletter.

Beyond the writing, I can also gather information about aging, examine my attitude towards aging, avoid using ageist terms or language, refuse to support those who discriminate against older adults, and join support groups that oppose ageism. 

While ageism is still present, we are making progress. Between the 1950s and 1990s, 80% of TV commercials used negative aging stereotypes. In contrast, a recent analysis of TV commercials showed that the use of negative stereotypes dropped by nearly 50%. What’s more, emerging research suggests the key to squelching the impact of ageism is rooted in deliberate inter-generational activities.

Myths

When I read the article 6 Ridiculous Myths about Woman over 60 , I found three myths that were particularly annoying and I am well over 60.

The first disturbing myth was that people tend to believe getting older is a time when horizons start to narrow, desires fade, health declines, brain power shrinks, and daily activities shift from dynamic to passive activities. In earlier generations, turning 60 marked the beginning of the end of one’s career and contribution to society. Not necessarily! In my 60’s, I got a PhD. In my 70’s, I started a new career- teaching online classes, and in my 80’s, I started another new career - writing.

The second irritating myth was that women over the age of 60 have no aspirations and can’t learn new things. They don’t have any remaining career ambitions, don’t understand technology, can’t learn new skills, and are otherwise completely out of touch. Not necessarily! I use a computer, an iPad, and a smart phone daily. I am learning to speak Spanish and to paint.

The third bothersome myth was that women over the age of 60 are “old,” “invisible” and “useless.” They don’t mind being relegated to a status of invisibility, not seen, not heard, and sadly not valued by society. Not necessarily! I still work daily and plan to contribute based on my life experience and education.

Gerontology texts claim myths portray older adults as

  • sick, disabled, generally in poor health, and more acute illnesses than younger adults.

  • senile and/or senility is an inevitable and not treatable mental illness among most elders.

  • socially isolated, lonely, and live alone.

  • sick, useless, senile, miserable, and thus depressed.

  • frail or feeble, capable of making only a limited contribution to society

That’s not me – is it you?

Attitudes About Aging

Adults who hold a more negative view of aging report lower levels of life satisfaction, well-being, and social supports, and they’re more likely to be hospitalized or to die young. A study out of North Carolina State University found that participants who had more negative views about aging, had stronger emotional reactions to daily stressors.

In a 2017 paper, Yale researcher, Becca Levy, outlined scientific research that overwhelmingly suggests our thinking about aging should become more positive, but, oddly enough, the reverse is happening.  

Similarly, Douglas La Bier noted that new research conducted at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland found that negative attitudes about aging affect both physical and cognitive health in a person’s later years. He said

According to the lead researcher, Deirdre Robertson, ‘The way we think about, talk about and write about aging may have direct effects on health. Everyone will grow older and if negative attitudes towards aging are carried throughout life they can have a detrimental, measurable effect on mental, physical and cognitive health.

The adage, “you’re only as old as you feel” is true. Regardless of your age, it's worth paying attention to, because a person’s attitude about aging seems to have a noticeable impact on his or her overall health.

You can read a lot of ideas online about how to promote a positive attitude about aging. Ideas such as staying physically involved, being socially active, reducing stress, keeping your brain active, and engaging in purposeful activities. But they seem vague.

To maintain a positive attitude, I have six goals:

  1. Have a purpose – a reason to get up in the morning really makes a difference.

  2. Keep busy - I started acrylic painting, taking online Spanish lessons, and volunteering.

  3. Look nice every day. When looking in the mirror, I want to like what I see.

  4. Exercise daily in some form if even just taking a walk. My goal is 10,000 steps but I don’t always reach it.

  5. Every situation has upsides and downsides; so, I look for the upsides and focus on them.

  6. Take care of myself physically, spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally.

In this article, we talked about the elusiveness of the term “old age” and identified topics that can affect your ability to age well. Keep in mind . . . .

It doesn’t define you, unless you let it.