Mythbuster 12: Perceptions of Growing Old

The world of TV tends to represent old people in the same old ways. The women are usually presented as sweet and kind, whilst old men are shown as conservative and grouchy. The problem with this is, in reality, it makes it easy for people to dismiss their opinions, concerns, and contributions. When it comes to news featuring an old person, more often than not stories covered show them as victims of anti-social behaviour, scams or muggings. Similarly, such stories perpetuate the perceptions of older people as vulnerable children in need of protection and charity. There are also negative perceptions about growing old in general, there is fear of illness, becoming senile, being lonely, being forced into care and abused. It’s important for old people’s self-image, health and quality of life that they see the positive aspects of ageing, and as Joanne Persson, a postgraduate psychology researcher at St Andrews University notes “It is (also) important that negative stereotypes of older people held by the young are challenged so they do not grow into old age holding these stereotypes of themselves.”

“The truth is I’m getting old, I said. We already are old, she said with a sigh. What happens is that you don’t feel it on the inside, but from the outside everybody can see it.” – Gabriel García Márquez

Becoming senile is inevitable

A photo of an elder man jogging
Elderly Man Jogging By Sangudo

Occasional memory lapses are common at any age but the longer a person lives the higher the risk of developing dementia. Although possible signs of dementia, such as uncertainty about how to perform simple tasks, difficulty in completing sentences and confusion about the month or season, are not normal signs of ageing. Many elderly people, even in the early stages of dementia, are able to understand and appreciate information as well as make important life choices. In a recent literature review on ageism, author Elizabeth Dozois explained: ‘Growing old is equated with inevitable deterioration and decline.’ Some people grossly overestimate the amount of old people who have dementia. 5.04% of males and 6.67% of females aged between 75-79 have dementia, and there are about 820,000 people in the UK in total living with it.

“I’m not senile,” I snapped. “If I burn the house down it will be on purpose.” – Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin

Old people are unproductive

Employers can sometimes perceive older people as  less likely to learn new skills, less energetic, creative, and productive than younger workers. Learning patterns may change and speed of learning may diminish but the basic capacity to learn is still retained as people age. They also have the advantage of possessing experience and institutional memory. The deterioration in physical abilities may also be exaggerated in the minds of people. On 16 October 2011, British national Fauja Singh became the first 100 year-old to complete a marathon by running the Toronto Waterfront Marathon in Canada. Productivity and creativity is often equated with employment, yet many old people see retirement as the time to explore their creative side; to volunteer or take up new hobbies. Most will also have roles as grandparents, caregivers, volunteers, or in civic and social activities.

“When we age we shed many skins: ego, arrogance, dominance, self-opinionated, unreliable, pessimism, rudeness, selfish, uncaring … Wow, it’s good to be old!” – Stephen Richards

Stuck in their ways

A photo of a 103 year old twitter user
Gordon and Sarah Brown with 104-year-old Twitter user Ivy Bean (seated), actor Richard Wilson and Dianne Jeffrey, chair of Age UK, at a Downing Street reception by Downing Street

Old age does not make a person inflexible; although research shows older people may change their opinion slower than younger people, most remain open to change throughout their lives. Older people are often associated with traditional values and behaviour, but not all elderly people are conservative, anti-modern, Christian, anti-same sex marriage ect. Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell claims that polls show only the retired do not support gay-marriage, despite polls indicating that 21% of the over 60s in Britain support it. He added: “If you explain to the over-65s that it’s civil marriage – not inflicting a view on the church – there is a narrow majority in favour.” This presumes that there aren’t any liberal or elderly LGBTI people and that most old people are devout Christians. Then what to make of 82 year old atheist, Alan Pickard, who made headlines after he hurled a church cross into a pond, because he thought the grounds of the village’s St John the Baptist Church was the “proper place for the artifice” and not the communal green? As for older people being anti-modern or technophobes, a survey by the University of Dundee of people over 50 found that 67% of respondents had used a computer – including 90% of 50-64 year olds, 60% of 65-74 year olds and 50% of 75-85 year olds. Additionally, 57% of all respondents said that they had access to a computer and 43% of participants owned a computer.

Old people receive poor care

During the BBC’s ‘When I’m 65’ season the presenters rather sceptically said: “I’d rather take my own life than face illness in old age”, or “I don’t think it’s too over-dramatic to say that I think care homes, by and large, are prisons that people are sent to as a punishment for being old”, and that the prospect of moving into a care home fills them with “enormous dread.” Extensive coverage has been given to the atrocities committed at mid-Staffordshire hospital; where patients were let down by a culture that put cost-cutting and target-chasing ahead of the quality of care leading to between 400 and 1,200 more deaths than was to be expected. But this incident is not a reflection of the care elderly people receive. There are armies of underrated and underpaid nurses and carers who dedicate their lives to helping others and ensuring they can live as independently and fully as possible.

Being put into a home is always involuntary

A photo of a happy pensioner
Happy Pensioner

People tend to see the departure from someone’s home as an involuntary decision. Indeed, some old people would prefer to die in their own houses. But for many the decision to enter a care home for the elderly is voluntary, and made because it can provide a better quality of life and social contacts; bringing together many people of a similar age. Another myth claims that they are only put into a care homes when they can no longer care for themselves and or when they do not want to burden their families. Care homes are places where many old people are never alone, have lots of activities, can socialize and have fun.

“As long as I am breathing, in my eyes, I am just beginning.” – Criss Jami

There may be some truth in the saying ‘you’re as young as you feel.’ Evidence suggests that negative stereotypes have an adverse effect on older people. Not only can it interfere with the happiness and enjoyment of their old age, it can also have negative impacts on old people’s health. One paper by Yale University suggested that people with a positive outlook on old age live on average seven and a half years longer. It’s about time our perceptions of the elderly and old age changed to reflect reality.


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