By Trena Winans, Senior Services Education & Outreach Director
Have you ever found yourself grumbling about the “old” driver in front of you? Despaired about an upcoming birthday or a new wrinkle on your face? Look around, and you will see negative stereotypes about aging all around us, and if we are honest with ourselves, most of us can observe numerous negative thoughts and beliefs about age within ourselves as well.
Ageism is arguably more prevalent and accepted than any other modern bias. The reality is that negative beliefs about aging have a very real impact on health, longevity, employment and quality of life, and it affects us all. Unless we are aspiring to die young, age will impact every person across all boundaries of race, color, nationality, creed and sexual orientation. The good news is that there is much more to celebrate about growing older than to despair of. What is needed is a change of perspective. What if Midland were to lead the way? What if we were to start with our own little corner of the world and show others how to embrace all the phases of our lives?
The Scope of the Problem
Next time you watch TV, make note of how many commercials advertise anti-aging products. Trusted personalities such as Oprah reinforce the message that we must fight age. When older adults are featured in articles and stories it is usually for either surpassing the 100-year mark, or for taking part in “extreme” activities associated with the young. Must we all skydive when we are 90 to be seen as aging well?
Perhaps some of the most disturbing stereotypes emerge in the relative anonymity of the internet. A recent study by researchers at Yale University found 84 publicly accessible non-commercial groups on FaceBook that came up in a search for 75 words including “old,” “aged,” “elderly,” “retired,” “experienced,” “senile” and “decrepit.” Among them, 74% criticized older people, 37% suggested they should be banned from public activities and 27% infantilized them.
Most of us can probably think of numerous times when we have heard, said, or thought about aging in a negative light. Some of it is couched as jokes: the “Over the Hill” birthday party themes, themed gift boxes in the shape of a coffin, or laughing at “senior moments.” Sometimes it is wistful: despairing about “feeling old,” searching for wrinkle remedies, or bemoaning changed physical capabilities. Other times, it may be couched as a compliment, but is really condescending or infantilizing—describing older adults as “cute,” marveling that they can “still” do certain things, or speaking with them as one would with a child.
Negative beliefs about age begin in childhood and are reinforced throughout our lives. By the time we reach the peak 1/3 of our lives, most of us have internalized these attitudes deeply. We see examples of it all the time. Regardless of age, many people like to tell themselves they are “not old enough” to take part in “senior” activities, or to access supports that could alleviate stress and help them more comfortably age in place. What age is “old” anyway? Studies show it depends on the age you are when you are asked. If you are under 65, old age begins at 65, but if you are over 65 it jumps to 80, and so on.
Ramifications of All That Negativity
Ageist thoughts have serious consequences. It is not just a matter of political correctness, but a matter of potential income and health loss, and even a shorter lifespan.
In the last few years alone, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received over 38,000 age discrimination complaints but has found age discrimination very difficult to prove. Only about 1/7 of age-related cases are settled to the benefit of the older adult making the complaint.
Worse, it appears that when people hold
negative beliefs about aging, it has a direct impact on their own health and longevity. Studies by Professor Becca Levy at Yale give some hard numbers to the cost of such beliefs. One study found that older adults with positive perceptions of aging lived 7.5 years longer than those with a negative view. In another, people who held positive beliefs about age were 44% more likely to recover from physical disabilities than those holding negative stereotypes about old people.
Turning it Around
Let’s start by recognizing that when it comes to aging, everybody’s doing it! There is much to celebrate about the wisdom and perspective of age.
Some of the positives are indicated in new research showing that as we get older we use more of our brains, helping us see general patterns more clearly than younger counterparts. Age can also enhance our ability to find the essential meaning in situations and stories. The older brain spreads memories across a wider range of brain structures than the young. As a result, it may take longer to pull up information, but the result is a better ability to see the big picture. Dr Bill Thomas, a national leader in changing age perceptions, proposes replacing the concept of “Senior
Moment” with “Mind Expansion Moment.”
The battle begins in our own hearts and minds. Why not begin with some substitutions? When you catch yourself thinking a negative, try to replace it with a positive.
- Instead of senior moment, think brain expansion moment!
- Instead of focusing on illness, focus on wellness
- Instead of anti-aging, think active aging, or enhanced aging
- Instead of decline, think of potential
- Instead of aging, we are “ripening to perfection!”
Above all, don’t let “senior” become a dirty word. When we think senior, let’s think of positive connotations like “Senior Executive,” and “seniority.” We may not be able to change the world, but we can change ourselves, embrace our age and make Midland County truly an age-friendly community!