Who’s old? Not I

To someone in their teens or early 20s, anyone over 30 is old. When you’re in your 40s, the 70s seem impossibly ancient. And when you’re 70-something? Well, then it’s the octogenarians who are old.

We think we know what it means to get old, yet our perceptions often are fueled by stereotypes about older adults – and as with most stereotypes, it can end up doing more harm than good.

The down side of pigeonholing older adults was astutely explored in a recent entry at the Covering Health blog. Although it was aimed primarily at reporters, it contains a larger message about what can happen when we categorize older adults as “old” instead of seeing them for what they are: a highly diverse population with diverse needs and in diverse states of health.

For starters, older adults themselves often don’t perceive themselves as old, writes Judith Graham, topic leader on aging for the Association of Health Care Journalists.

She cites a 2009 study by the Pew Research Center that reveals some interesting insights about aging. Here’s one: Of the adults over age 65 who participated in the poll, 60 percent said they felt younger than their actual age, and many said they felt 10 to 20 years younger than they actually were.

Here’s another: There’s a measurable gap between what younger adults expect their lives to be like as they get old – negatives such as memory loss, loneliness, depression – and what older adults report as their own experience.

In other words, despite the stereotypes, aging often isn’t the burden younger adults think it is.

So why do we persist in viewing the elderly as, well, elderly – and, more to the point, what are the consequences of doing so? Some provocative studies have suggested that when older adults internalize the widespread cultural stereotype that to get old means to become frail and diminished, they are more likely to be in poor health and less likely to take care of themselves, Graham writes.

In response, there has been a push to rewrite the script on aging to portray it in more positive terms, she writes. But beware making too many assumptions in this direction, Graham warns:

The danger here is that efforts to create a new narrative focused on the positive aspects of aging – one that centers on activity, wellness, encore careers, volunteering, and having more time to spend with friends, family – risks marginalizing older people who aren’t especially healthy or well off financially.

I’d add that it also risks sending the message that older adults who aren’t as healthy are somehow doing it wrong and are in need of being “corrected.”

To be sure, efforts to create a better, more healthy old age are beneficial, not only to individuals but to the communities they live in as well.The key, points out Graham, is to view older adults as individuals, each with his or her own life story, challenges and desires. When she advises that “there’s no substitute for face-to-face interactions,” she could be talking about the setting of the medical exam room, the hospital room or the skilled nursing facility.

It may take time to encourage older adults to talk about themselves, Graham says. “But I suspect you’ll be surprised by what older people will tell you, if you take the time, suspend judgment and truly listen.”

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