Challenging the Stereotypes: Time to Reverse the Image of Aging

Would you like to live an average of 7 ½ years longer than your peers? Here’s one way to do it: change the way you think about aging.

That was one of the hopeful and thought-provoking observations we encountered in this timely article that we recently read on the Kaiser Health News website. The article is all about the need to challenge the common misperceptions about growing older – “negative stereotypes that portray older adults as out-of-touch, useless, feeble, incompetent, pitiful and irrelevant,” in the words of the Kaiser article. “From late-night TV comedy shows where supposedly clueless older people are the butt of jokes to ads for anti-aging creams equating youth with beauty and wrinkles with decay, harsh and unflattering images shape assumptions about aging.” The article’s author, aging expert and author Judith Graham, adds that, “Although people may hope for good health and happiness, in practice they tend to believe that growing older involves deterioration and decline.”

The implications of these negative stereotypes go far beyond mere embarrassment, says Graham. The sad reality of the widely-held perception of aging as a time of inevitable decline and marginalization is that these “dismal expectations can become self-fulfilling,” she writes. As people start experiencing some of the changes that are often associated with growing older, including simple things like stiff knees or hearing problems, and if they have “internalized negative stereotypes, [their] confidence may be eroded.” They start to become stressed out and lose motivation. Their self-talk becomes negative: “I’m old, and it’s too late to change things.” They stop trying to learn or accomplish anything new.

Writes Graham, “Health often suffers as a result, according to studies showing that older adults who hold negative stereotypes tend to walk slowly, experience memory problems and recover less fully from a fall or fracture, among other ramifications. By contrast, seniors whose view of aging is primarily positive live 7.5 years longer.” In other words, if you want to live longer, you may want to start by changing your mind about growing older.

Judith Graham writes in Kaiser Health News about a recent forum on aging conducted by the National Academy of Sciences. At this scientific gathering, experts discussed the question of how to reverse these negative stereotypes surrounding growing older. One suggestion from researchers is for each of us to become aware of “implicit biases” – those “automatic, unexamined thoughts that reside below the level of our awareness.” One of the study participants, a chief medical officer with AARP, offered a personal experience, recalling when she had to use a cane after recovering from a severe injury. Because so many of us associate an older person using a cane with dependence and helplessness, this woman was surprised at how often she was treated in a patronizing way. It made her start to internalize the message of being physically incompetent and unable to care for her needs. “I would come home feeling terrible about myself,” she confided.

Once we become aware of these subtle anti-aging biases, says Judith Graham, we need to develop strategies to combat them. For example, instead of assuming an older person with a cane is feeble and in need of help, it would be a better idea to treat them with respect and simply ask whether or not they need assistance. We should embrace new images of aging in our own minds: focus on older athletes, for example, or entertainers like Tony Bennett or Norman Lear, or older business or political leaders – people still going strong and leading energetic and vital lives well into their senior years. If you find yourself looking at those older than you through the lens of a negative stereotype, one sure way to change your image of those with more years under their belts than you have is to go visit some of them and get to know their stories. Often you’ll find that these older men and women are still active and enjoying life, not settling for some stereotypically negative existence.

Of course, the Kaiser Health News article admits, sometimes aging does bring unavoidable physical impairment, but that does not mean seniors should become negative and self-deprecating. “Bolstering positive images of aging and countering the effect of negative stereotypes needs to be a central part” of everyone’s thinking, Graham advises.  Older adults can accomplish this change in mindset “by choosing to focus on what’s going well in their lives rather than what’s going wrong.” Based on our experience here at AgingOptions, we would add that negativity tends to breed negativity, and if you are surrounded by pessimists, it may be time to seek out more positive and forward thinking friends.  “The thing is to accept whatever is happening to you, not deny it,” stated one expert speaking about adjusting attitudes about aging. “You can’t keep things as they are: You have to go through a necessary reassessment of what’s possible. The thing is to do it with graciousness, not bitterness, and to learn how to ask for help, acknowledging the reality of interdependence.”

At AgingOptions we have interacted with thousands of senior adults, in our office, on the radio, and at our seminars, and we agree with the premise of the Kaiser Health News article. It has been said countless times, and it bears repeating, that we should never underestimate the power of positive thinking. One thing we also know from experience is that there’s no better way to change fear about the future into optimism than to develop a truly comprehensive retirement plan. We call this an AgingOptions LifePlan, and it is designed to serve as your blueprint as you build the type of retirement you’ve always hoped for, one in which your assets are protected, you can avoid becoming a burden to those you love, and you can escape the fate of being forced into institutional care against your will. With a LifePlan in place, your finances, health care needs, housing options, legal protection and family communication are all taken into account: each becomes part of your LifePlan, working seamlessly with all the other facets. It’s our view that nothing gives you more peace of mind than a carefully crafted LifePlan.

It’s easy to find out the rest of the story: join us soon for a LifePlanning Seminar with Rajiv Nagaich. For a complete listing of currently scheduled seminars, simply click here – then register online or call us during the week for assistance. Change your mind about growing old and it will help you live longer; guard your retirement with an AgingOptions LifePlan and you’ll be far more likely to enjoy a fruitful, vital and secure future. Age on!

(originally reported at www.khn.org)

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Posted in Articles, End of Life, Health, Miscellaneous, News.

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