How many times have you seen a grumpy old man yelling at children for being on his lawn? On TV, it’s probably been countless numbers, but in real life it’s much less likely. Ageing brings with it a lot of uncertainty and fear, not least because of the stereotypes that we have attached to it; crabbiness, low libido, pain. However, as we start to live longer, and as healthcare improves, more and more we’re beginning to realise that these negative images of the future are really not what they seem.
The damage of negative stereotypes
Not only are negative stereotypes insulting and condescending (not to mention inaccurate), but they also promote a lack of confidence, and lead to self-fulfilling prophecies – if you approach something already believing that you’ll fail, then you’ll lack motivation. And if you do fail, it will just prove you right, and that you definitely shouldn’t try again.
Not only that but, according to a 2014 study, believing in these negative stereotypes can actually be physically and mentally harmful; people who do have been shown to have higher rates of cardiac disease, shorter life expectancy and poorer memory, to name but a few of the effects. Conversely, seniors who were exposed to positive subliminal messages about ageing were shown to have long-term improvements in physical and cognitive abilities, as well as in confidence.
Common myths and their truths
Myth: The mind always goes, leading to memory loss and dementia
Truth: Even though reaction times and mental processing speeds tend to decline, there are other areas of the brain that improve – functions like language and speech, and areas that rely on accumulated experience and knowledge such as mediation and problem solving. The brain continues to produce new cells and make new connections, and various studies have shown that different brain functions peak at different ages; for example, vocabulary doesn’t peak until in the late 60s-early 70s.
What about forgetting someone’s name, or where you left your glasses? This is more likely due to changes in your brain’s neurochemicals, and isn’t only restricted to seniors. Memory problems certainly do not mean that dementia is inevitable, and there are a lot of ways to help combat the onset of dementia, such as remaining physically and mentally active.
Myth: You cannot teach an old dog new tricks
Truth: The older generation have had to adapt to many new situations and technologies throughout their lives, from computers and digital cameras, to microwaves and even supermarkets (in 1947 there were only ten “self-service” shops in the UK).
Surveys show that more seniors are working longer, trying out different careers, and value the opportunity to learn new things in their jobs. And according to the Kaufmann Foundation (an American entrepreneurship charity), almost a quarter of new start-ups in 2017 were by those aged 55-64. Altogether, it certainly doesn’t sound like a generation unable to adapt!
Myth: Pain and arthritis are inevitable
Truth: Arthritis may be more common as you get older, due to persistent long-term wear on the joints and bones, but in fact there are a range of factors that can affect the likelihood of getting it. According to Arthritis Research UK, only half of all people over the age of 75 have sought treatment for osteoarthritis, the most common form, while US estimates are that almost two-thirds of Americans diagnosed with arthritis by a doctor between 2002-2014 were younger than 65.
Regular exercise helps to strengthen the muscles around the joints, and has been shown to have a positive effect on the amount of cartilage in the knee (one of the most common locations to suffer) in older women. There’s a lot of concern around exercising when you’re older however, which leads us to…
Myth: You’re too old to exercise
Truth: It’s never too late to start exercising! Moderate, regular exercise helps relieve stress and keeps your heart and lungs strong, with one study even showing that starting exercise later in life can reduce the risk of heart attacks in older men. It also helps improve your balance and prevent bone and muscle loss, which in turn reduces the chance of falls, whereas not exercising can increase your chances of suffering from diabetes, obesity and heart disease, or make them worse if you already do.
If you’re worried about injuring yourself exercising, just remember that the more you do it, the healthier you will get, and the less likely you’ll become of hurting yourself. It’s all about practice!
Myth: The libido dies
Truth: Yes, it is true that oestrogen levels decline in women as they age, which can lower sex drive. And yes, it is true that older men can have erectile problems. However, the idea that once you develop wrinkles, sex is OUT is just another of case of not looking deeper at the causes – and the truth is that it also relies heavily on health factors, such as treatable conditions like heart disease and high blood pressure. Desire may wane somewhat once reaching roughly 75 but, as with a lot of these myths, the important thing is to remain physically, mentally and socially active.
For those seniors who do find it physically or emotionally difficult, there are a lot of different options to help them without immediately jumping to medication (especially since these don’t always combine well with existing health issues). The NHS has some great advice on how to approach sexual health issues in older age.
Myth: Old age leads to loneliness and depression
Truth: There is no evidence that getting “old” makes you cranky – just the opposite in fact! Research suggests that we tend to become more agreeable and conscientious as we age…meaning that if you’re an old cranky person, it’s probably because you were a young cranky person. And studies have shown that, even in the face of health or mental issues, seniors are actually one of the happiest age groups.
One of the important factors to staying happy is remaining socially active. Old age doesn’t automatically mean loneliness; the charity Age UK runs day centres that provide a range of activities, and websites like Meetup are fantastic for finding local groups with specific interests – or for starting your own!
Important note: depression is a real, treatable disease, and should not be used as a sweeping statement when it comes to old age. If you think that you, or someone you love, may be suffering from depression, then please visit a doctor for a diagnosis.
Changing these beliefs
One of the ways to change public opinion would be if the media stopped with alarmist headlines and judging older women for what they wear. However, a change to society’s casual ageism needs to come first. Education is what’s needed; lists like the above are a good start, but it’s not enough.
Firstly, we need to recognise our own unconscious biases, such as assuming someone with a cane is helpless, or that grey hair means senility. Seniors should be asked if they need help, not have the decision made for them. The same can be said for making conversation – these are people, with hobbies and dreams. Consider people who don’t fit into the stereotypes, whether it’s Helen Mirren and Morgan Freeman acting up a storm, Mansour Bahrami tearing up the court at Wimbledon, or Ruth Bader Ginsburg tirelessly fighting for what’s right. Would you only ask them about their grandchildren?
It’s also important to remember the positives of ageing, whatever age we are. As stated earlier, there are certain things that your brain gets better at as you age, plus you have a lifetime of knowledge and experience to draw on. You have a higher level of emotional maturity, meaning you have better social skills, and research in general says you are likely to be happier. Retiring leaves you with plenty of extra time to spend on family and friends – and on yourself! It’s a great chance to take up a new hobby, travel somewhere different, or get involved in some local volunteering. There’s so much you can do!
Finally, don’t forget that it happens to everyone, so the more we can do to dispel these myths the better the future will be for all of us. As activist Ashton Applewhite points out, activities such as dying our hair to hide the grey, serve to make ‘age’ invisible…and “when people are invisible, so are the issues that affect them”. The less we fight against ageing, the more visible and happy we will become.
At SuperCarers, we enable older people to continue living independently in their own homes by finding the right home care for them. We match families with local home carers who meet their needs. Give us a call on 020 8629 1030 to find out more about how SuperCarers works.