For Healthy Aging Month, Let’s Bust Some Myths About Older Adults!
During September, we’ve been celebrating Healthy Aging Month. Carolyn Worthington, creator of this observance month, says it’s a great opportunity to focus on the positive aspects of growing older, rather than on the stereotypes.
In that spirit, let’s look at some misconceptions that could stand in the way of making the best choices for ourselves as we grow older.
Myth #1: Seniors are grouchy. Whether it’s cartoon strips starring curmudgeonly old men, or sitcoms in which older “grannies” whack teenagers with their canes, the “crabby senior” is an archetype with which we are all familiar. It’s true that physical pain, depression, sensory impairment and mobility loss can take a toll on anyone’s mood and outlook on life. But gerontological psychologists tell us that in general, our personality traits remain the same throughout our lives—and many of us even develop a more positive attitude as we age. For example, several recent studies show that older adults are weathering the pandemic with greater resilience and emotional stability than are their younger counterparts.
Laura Carstensen of the Stanford Center for Longevity says, “In general, people get happier as they get older.” Asked about the stereotype of the grumpy old man, Carstensen said, “Most of the grumpy old men out there are grumpy young men who grew old.” Seniors who are experiencing an uncharacteristic negative mood should be evaluated for underlying causes.
Myth #2: Memory loss is inevitable as we age. The idea of the “senile” older adult is a pervasive cliché. Any older adult who has gone shopping with a younger relative, only to be ignored by a salesperson, knows that younger people often assume that seniors are incompetent. It is true that Alzheimer’s disease, stroke and other conditions that cause memory loss and cognitive impairment are more common as we grow older, and certain memory changes are considered to be age related. Yet most of us remain fully cognitively intact well into our later years. Indeed, recent studies suggest that older brains are better at certain tasks that involve discernment and judgment—the qualities more commonly referred to as “wisdom.”
It is important to seek medical evaluation for memory problems right away. Many cases of memory loss are treatable—nutritional deficiencies, depression, sleep problems and medication side effects are common culprits. If the diagnosis is Alzheimer’s or a similar condition, early diagnosis allows for the best care and planning.
Myth #3: Longevity will continue to increase. During the 20th century, the average lifespan in the U.S. lengthened by 30 years! Many people assume that this trend will continue. But studies suggest that the baby boomers are not experiencing increased longevity—and they may even be taking a step backwards. For one thing, multiple studies suggest that the COVID pandemic has lowered average life expectancy. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that boomers are more likely than their parents to be living with two or more chronic conditions. And a team led by life expectancy expert S. Jay Olshansky of the University of Illinois Chicago predicted a decline in life expectancy within the 21st century, as increased obesity rates lead to higher rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other chronic illnesses.
A survey conducted by the National Council on Aging found that although most people of middle age expect their lives to improve as they grow older, many are failing to take important steps to preserve their health. This is a reminder for people of every age that wellness doesn’t just happen. We can make lifestyle choices that increase the likelihood that we will enjoy a healthy old age.
Myth #4: Everyone ages in the same way. Today’s emphasis on healthy aging might seem to convey the message that we are in total control of our health as we grow older. But no matter how diligent we are, unexpected illnesses, accidents and even our genes can send us on an unexpected path. There is no cookie-cutter model for how we will age and what our needs will be. On the individual level, this means that we should anticipate that conditions such as arthritis, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes or heart disease could strike even the most health-conscious among us. Learning all we can about the issues of later life allows us to create a flexible plan. Many national and community senior support organizations confirm that in these times when we are trying to stretch our senior-support dollars, pinpointing the specific needs of individual seniors will bring increased efficiency and promote buy-in for taking charge of our own health.
Myth #5. Senior living is one-size-fits-all. Another common stereotype portrays all seniors as living in nursing homes—and the image is of the nursing homes of yesteryear, with rows of 65-year-olds in rocking chairs. In fact, today’s senior living residences provide facilities and programs to keep residents vibrant, no matter their mobility, cognitive and sensory health challenges. While most people express a wish to stay in their own homes even as their care needs change, we might be a lot happier, healthier, socially connected and even more independent if we chose an independent living, assisted living or skilled nursing living environment. Contact the Alden Network to learn more about senior living options.
The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your health care provider. Talk to your doctor about lifestyle choices that are right for you.