It's Not Necessarily So!

Myths and Misinformation about Aging

Douglas La Beir, psychotherapist and Director of the Center for Progressive Development asks two 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.

The answer to his questions may lie in two directions. The first direction revolves around the term ageism - how a person thinks, feels, and acts towards others or oneself based on age. The second direction is the abundance of myths and misinformation that flourish regarding older adults. Both play a role in your view and experience of aging.

Ageism

Ageism, or age discrimination, occurs when a person of a certain age is treated unfairly. This discrimination can include being forced to retire early, being overlooked for a promotion, or being refused car insurance. Discrimination may also be a factor when an older person is ignored service in a shop or restaurant, receives less than quality health care, or is denied membership to a club.

Ageism extends to the way older adults are represented in the media, which affects the public’s attitude. Older adults are rarely portrayed as wise, weathered, or intelligent rather they are depicted as sweet, naïve, and vulnerable, typically.

News stories featuring older adults as crime victims are a natural extension of this portrayal. Headlines such as “Elderly woman scammed out of $135K in Publishers Clearing House scam” and “Elderly man missing in Torrington” appear all too often. These headlines characterize older people as needing protection and care, which in turn makes it easier for their opinions, concerns, and contributions to be downplayed.

Furthermore, a University of Southern California study noted

If you watch TV, you're likely to hear ageist language, see worn-out stereotypes, and wonder why older characters lead such one-dimensional lives. That's if older adults even exist, much less speak, on your favorite shows. Seniors are underrepresented on screen, behind the camera and as TV writers and producers.

Myths and Misinformation

Increased awareness and accurate information can empower someone to recognize important facts, make informed choices, and counter fears about life. Yet myths and misinformation are frequently circulated in an endless loop of fibs. They abound on every topic from drug use to climate change. This attitude, inaccurate media portrayals, and a lack of adequate education combine to produce these myths and misinformation. 

People are peppered with assumptions about aging; many of which aren’t true. These assumptions suggest that elderly people are less adaptable to change, and old people are crabby, depressed, and lonely.

The age at which a person is considered “elderly” depends on what you read. For example, The Social Security Administration says ‘elderly’ is 65+. They determine who is eligible for benefits accordingly. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines elderly as "being past middle age." AARP says that a senior is anyone over 50.  Yet, there is no established standard.

Anne Tergesen writer for the Wall Street Journal covering retirement offers words of hope though. She says everyone knows that as we age, our minds and bodies decline, life becomes less satisfying and enjoyable, and we become less productive at work. The hope Ms. Tergesen offers is that everyone it seems is wrong. Take a look at her video:

There are many older adults who agree. Think about 87-year old Dianne Feinstein, the senator from California; 90-year-old Warren Buffet, the successful business man and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway; or 99-year old Betty White, the actress, activist, and comedian to name a few.

Stereotypes about seniors are pervasive in our culture, in films, on television and even in the jokes we hear. There is even a website dedicate to jokes about old age.

As you age, you are often pressured to re-evaluate and restrict your idea of what is “appropriate;” whether it be your choice of clothing, involvement in a sport, or even dating and physical intimacy. This pressure can erroneously lead you to think you are “too old for this or that.”

There is a common myth that individuals, particularly seniors with disabilities must be completely catered to and treated as children. This catering tends to  strip them of their sense of independence, and in some cases, their self-worth.  

In truth, as long as the individual is still cognitively and/or physically capable of doing something — whether it is making his or her own decisions or taking part in normal day-to-day activities — they should be given the opportunity to do so.

The National Institute of Health discusses 10 common misconceptions related to aging and older adults. Briefly they are

1. Depression and loneliness are normal in older adults. The truth is that some older adults may find themselves feeling isolated and alone. Yet, growing older can have many emotional benefits, such as long-lasting relationships with friends and family and a lifetime of memories to share with loved ones.

2. The older I get the less sleep I need. Older adults need the same amount of sleep as all adults — 7 to 9 hours nightly.

3. Older adults can’t learn new things. Older adults still have the ability to learn new things, create new memories, and improve their performance in a variety of skills.

While aging does come with changes in thinking, many changes are positive, such as having more knowledge and insight from a lifetime of experiences. Trying and learning new skills may even improve cognitive abilities.

4. It is inevitable that older people will get dementia. Although the risk of dementia grows as people get older, it’s not inevitable. Many people live into their 90s and beyond without the significant declines in thinking and behavior that characterize dementia.

5. Older adults should take it easy and avoid exercise so they don’t get injured. Studies show that you have a lot more to gain by being active and a lot to lose by sitting too much.

6. If a family member has Alzheimer’s disease, I will have it, too. A person’s chance of having Alzheimer’s disease may be higher if he or she has a family history of dementia because there are some genes that we know increase risk.

However, having a parent with Alzheimer’s doesn’t necessarily mean that someone will develop the disease. Environmental and lifestyle factors, such as exercise, diet, exposure to pollutants, and smoking also may affect a person’s risk for Alzheimer’s.

7. Now that I am older, I will have to give up driving. As the U.S. population ages, the number of licensed older adults on the road will continue to increase. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) recorded a record-high 221.7 million licensed drivers in the U.S. in 2016, including 41.7 million — or almost one in five — who are 65 years or older.

8. Only women need to worry about osteoporosis. Although osteoporosis is more common in women, this disease still affects many men and can be under-diagnosed.

9. I’m “too old” to quit smoking. It doesn’t matter how old you are or how long you’ve been smoking, quitting improves your health. Smokers who quit have fewer colds and the flu, lower rates of bronchitis and pneumonia, and an overall better feeling of well-being.

10. My blood pressure has lowered or returned to normal, so I can stop taking my medication. If you take high blood pressure medicine and your blood pressure goes down, it means the medicine and any lifestyle changes you have made are working. However, it is very important to continue your treatment and activities long-term. . .. or check with your doctor.

Which myths and misinformation influence your thinking and decisions? Make a list of them. Now, ask yourself whether you want them to define your life.