Myths and Stereotypes of Aging
By Jeff Anderson
Ageist stereotypes about seniors are pervasive in our culture. In films, on television and even in the jokes we hear, misconceptions and stereotypes about aging and seniors are ever present.
Like any form of bias, ageism has led many of us to make false assumptions about seniors.
Learn more about some of the top myths of aging:
Myth: Aging is Depressing
Contrary to the myth that aging is depressing, many studies find that seniors are among the happiest age group. Happiness levels by age follow a U-shaped curve, with self reported levels of happiness at their lowest at age 40, but then growing thereafter. In addition, those who think aging is depressing also believe that it makes seniors grumpier. People who are unhappy in their younger years will likely continue to be in their later years, and similarly, good-natured people continue on a happy trajectory as they age. In other words, one’s attitude comes down to their individual personality, not an age group.
Myth: Aging Leads to Loneliness
Though social isolation can be a problem for seniors, especially to those who have limited mobility, lack of transportation or who have recently lost a spouse, most seniors are able to stay stay socially engaged. Activities and visits with family and friends, and at places such as the local senior center or a place of worship, also help seniors stay socially active and happy.
Myth: Aging Dulls Wits and Inevitably Causes Dementia
While aging can create cognitive changes, older people may perform better in certain areas of intelligence and poorer in others. For example, while seniors may have slower reaction times, “mental capabilities that depend most heavily on accumulated experience and knowledge, like settling disputes and enlarging one’s vocabulary, clearly get better over time,” writes Patricia Cohen in the New York Times. What’s more, dementia is anything but inevitable. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, only 5% of those over age 65 will develop dementia.
Myth: Aging Makes You Unproductive
Though retired people may have left the workforce, they are hardly unproductive. They contribute countless hours to activities like helping with child-rearing and volunteering, which makes an enormous impact on society. In fact, a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates 24% of senior citizens report engaging in volunteer work after retirement.
Myth: Aging Makes You Less Creative
There are countless examples that dispel the myth that aging makes you less creative. In fact, many artists actually find their calling or achieve mastery in their later years. A great example is the immortal “Grandma Moses.”
Anna Mary Robinson Moses was an ordinary, unassuming woman who lived on a farm in upstate New York in the mid 1800’s. After her husband passed away, Mrs. Moses (as she liked to call herself) transitioned from farm work to a quieter life of embroidering for fun and making delicious preserves for her now grown children. But, when arthritis made embroidering too painful, a friend suggested she try painting. Mrs. Moses took to painting scenes of rural life, and even hung a few of her paintings in the local drugstore. Her paintings caught the eye of a prominent art collector who was passing through town and the rest is history. Her first one-woman art show was held in 1940 when Moses was already 80-years-old. She became famous and was dubbed “Grandma Moses,” a name that stuck. She continued to paint until the age 101.
Myth: Aging Makes You Unable to Adapt to New Situations
Older people are not only able to adapt to new situations, they are actually experts at adapting. By the time one has become a senior, they have had to adapt to innumerable changes and transitions in life, many of which could have certainly been challenging. Seniors may be slower to change their opinions, but one of humanity’s’ greatest traits, adaptability, is generally retained as we grow old.
Myth: Aging Erases Your Libido
Discussing the love and sex lives of seniors is largely taboo in our culture and has led to the stereotype that the elderly are sexless. This stereotype is harmful because it can cause seniors to have conflicted feelings or unnecessary guilt about their sexuality, while simultaneously causing younger people to hold misconceptions about aging and the elderly. As a state of Oregon document notes adroitly: “Research has found that sexual activity and enjoyment do not decrease with age. People with physical health, a sense of well-being and a willing partner are more likely to continue sexual relations. People who are bored with their partner, mentally or physically tired, afraid of failure or overindulge in food or drink are unlikely to engage in sexual activity. These reasons do not differ a great deal when considering whether or not a person will engage in sex at any age.”
Myth: Aging Makes You More Religious
Seniors certainly have a higher rate of religious attendance than younger people, but this is a generational phenomenon rather than an aging phenomenon. If you regularly attended church growing up, you’re likely to continue to do so as you age. Today’s senior’s haven’t become more religious with time. Instead they grew up in a time when more people went to church, which is why seniors are the most religious age group.
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