Myths of Aging

Granny and the Geezer:

How myths, stereotypes and prejudice fuel ageism–the Golden Years through a glass darkly.

The Golden years are here at last.
I cannot see, I cannot pee.
I cannot chew, I cannot screw.
My memory shrinks, my hearing stinks.
No sense of smell, I look like hell.
The Golden years have come at last.
The Golden years can kiss my ass.
(Principato, 2009)

A “mythos” to the ancient Greeks, was “speech” or “discourse,” but over time the word evolved into meaning “fable” or “legend.”  As a story of vague or forgotten origin, often religious or supernatural in nature, a myth is often used to “explain or rationalize one or more aspects of the world or a society” (Doyle, 1997).  Typically, myths are actually believed to be true or basically so by those people or societies that used or originated them.

By attempting to explain or rationalize some aspect of human existence or institutions, myths served purposes similar to science, religion and history.  To understand a people, a culture, one must attempt to know and understand the myths of that culture.  By acquiring that understanding, we not only better understand the present, but we can use that understanding to move in the direction of a better future.

When a myth is repeated and “passed along” throughout the various communication channels used by a society, e.g. news media, internet, blogs, periodicals, it is well on its way to becoming a stereotype–a commonly held, often standardized and simplified concept that has been invested–or charged–with special meaning (Merriam-Webster, 2009).  A stereotype is often used in a prejudicial way, particularly when it involves beliefs directed at a person or category of people involving such characteristics as gender, disability, sexual orientation or age.

While a prejudice can be positive or negative, most age-related prejudices are negative and reflect a number of emotions and attitudes, including: fear, antipathy, envy, jealousy and transferred anger by younger members of society. Although a stereotype could be true and objective, when social scientists use the term, they are generally referring to connotations that are both negative and inaccurate. (Haslam, 2004).   So, as Tornstam points out “when we find that almost 90 percent of Swedes falsely believe that one in two retirement pensioners suffer from loneliness, we can safely call this belief or image a stereotype.” (Tornstam, 2007, p. 37)

Aging and the aged have long been the subjects of–and many might say, targets of–myth-makers or myth-conveyers in many societies.  A recent Google search on the topic “myth” + “aging,” almost instantly generated 2,250,000 “hits.”  If a myth serves to explain or rationalize attitudes and aspects of a society, then a review of common myths about aging offers a sad commentary on our contemporary society.  Of greater concern is the extent to which misleading myths help perpetuate fallacious stereotypes that are used to make, shape, or alter, public policies and benefits affecting “senior citizens”–fostering ageism.

More than half the people who ever lived to be 65 are alive today, according to Jeanne Sather, who writes on Healthline that myths on aging should themselves be retired.  “That alone suggests that myths about aging based on past generations may not hold true for this one.” (Sather, 2008)  Wishing a myth away is not supported by research.

“Ageism can be seen…in making scapegoats of older men and women and in stereotyping them. It is seen in the deferral or denial of the realities of aging. Our language is replete with negative references, such as “dirty old man” and “greedy geezer,” that would never be acceptable if applied to any other group…Graphic pictorial images that denigrate old age often appear in our media.” (Bernstein et al., 2006)

When we contrast common myths held by our society about aging with scientific fact, we can understand how Drs. John Rowe and Robert Kahn can reach the conclusion “that our society is in persistent denial of some important truths about aging. Our perceptions about the elderly fail to keep pace with the dramatic changes in their actual status. We view the aged as sick, demented, frail, weak, disabled, powerless, sexless, passive, alone, unhappy, and unable to learn—in short, a rapidly growing mass of irreversibly ill, irretrievable older Americans. To sum up, the elderly are depicted as a figurative ball and chain holding back an otherwise spry collective society.”  (Rowe & Kahn, 2009).  This summary, by the authors, reflected over ten years of research by the MacArthur Foundation Study of Aging in America.

“WHERE is my SUNDAY  paper?!” The little old lady calling the newspaper office, loudly demanded to know where her Sunday edition was. “Madam”, said the newspaper  employee, “today is Saturday. The Sunday paper is not delivered until tomorrow, on SUNDAY“. There  was quite a long pause on the other end of the phone, followed by a ray of recognition as the little old lady was heard to mutter, “Well, shit… that’s why no one was at church today.” (Principato, 2009)

The MacArthur Foundation study identified many age-related myths in our society, including six that were “frequently heard,” including:

myth #1: To be old is to be sick.
myth #2: You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
myth #3: The horse is out of the barn.
myth #4: The secret to successful aging is to choose your parents wisely.
myth #5: The lights may be on, but the voltage is low.
myth #6: The elderly don’t pull their own weight.  (Rowe & Kahn, 2009)

“When people think of growing older, they often have images of deprivation, poverty, poor health, loneliness and loss of mental capacity,” Dr. DeLee Lantz points out in the introduction to a National Institute of Aging of the National Institutes of Health questionnaire (Lantz, 2009).  Are views held by many likely to be accurate?  How true are stereotypes?  Are many views about aging and the aged actually myths that are accepted because of repetition?

An objective comparison of frequently held myths about aging reveals a significant gap between the myth and scientific fact.  While most of these myths cannot be sustained when compared with scientific findings, the myths persist.

A better understanding of myths related to aging and the degree of their truthfulness is gained by organizing them into three overall categories, including those related to: attention, memory and perception.  It should be remembered that these selections represent a very small fraction of age-related myths and stereotypes.

Categories

 

Myths/Stereotypes

 

Fact(s)

 

Attention-related “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

 

Limited data are available on attentional deficits related to aging.  Some cognitive slowing may occur, perhaps due to neural connection loss or loss of information during processing (Cavanaugh & Blanchard-Fields, 2006) However, people at any age can acquire new skills and information.
Memory-related

 

“When you age, you lose your memory.” “Think aging is all about losing your memory and becoming hard of hearing? Think again. Many people sail through the aging process without walkers or pacemakers. In fact, researchers now believe it’s those age-related diseases—diabetes, heart disease, cancer, stroke, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s—that leave us frail or disabled, rather than the normal aging of our bodies.” (Kotz, February 20, 2009)

 

Older people have more mental problems, e.g. learning, remembering or concentrating. Nearly five percent of the general population have problems with learning, remembering or concentrating.  Of those from 65-74 (10.8%), 75-84 (6.3%), and 85 and older (27.7%) have such problems or issues (Gist & Hetzel, 2004, p. 11).  Only the very elderly have significantly greater issues with learning, remembering or concentrating than the general public.
Perception-related

 

Older people are more subject to variations in heat or cold.

Extremes of heat or cold are more threatening for older people.

True, generally, the body’s thermostat is less efficient as we get older.

 

 

 

 

 

  Most older people are depressed.

 

Fact, most older people, according to the National Institute on Aging, are not depressed.  When it does occur, it can be treated.
  Most older people are deaf or having trouble with their vision. Over one-third of those over 85 have sensory disabilities, including blindness, deafness or hearing impairment, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.  (Gist & Hetzel, 2004, p. 11).  However, only 8.7 percent of those 65-74 and 16.9 percent of those 75 to 84 have such disabilities.  The “myth” has broader factual support for the very elderly.

 

The negative effects of ageism on the elderly reach much further than depression, they are thought to reduce life span, as well.  For example, in its impressive “Ageism in America” report, the International Longevity Center notes that “older people with positive perceptions of aging lived an average of 7.5 years longer than did those with negative images of growing older.” (Bernstein et al., 2006, p. 61).

More significant overall is the impact on public policy of myth and stereotypes about the elderly.  Too often it is the myths, not the facts, that become the foundation for public policy formulation, a process that may well be currently underway in Washington with the Medicare system being revised in ways that can only result in decreased resources and access for millions of American seniors.

Stereotypes persist and resist efforts to combat them with facts, as Tornstam reports in a Swedish study conducted over 23 years.  “Little seems to have changed for the better,” he concluded.  (Tornstam, 2007, p. 1)  However, negative characterizations can be “reversed to ‘positive’ stereotypes at the same time as negative stereotypes of psychological conditions remain the same.” (p. 23)  He outlines a new stereotype in Sweden of wealthy, fit and spoiled “pensioners,” who are being characterized as being greedy for staying in their own homes too long; thus, denying the scarce (in Sweden) private housing to younger people.

Sociologists, gerontologists and other enlightened leaders in society are attempting a more pro-active strategy of introducing new metaphors.

Often, field of interest pertaining to the aged and aging can be in conflict.  Even while public policy makers are busy creating legislation that has the effect of rationing care for America’s eldery, the scientific community is generally seen as promoting the well being of our aging populations.  One positive step is to address the demeaning myth and misleading stereotype with new metaphors.  Scientists and other enlightened professionals are taking a leading role in creating and introducing new metaphors intended to “cast a motivating optimistic aura about aging.”  (Birren, 2002).  Terms like “successful aging,” “productive aging,” and “vital aging” “reflect a rising interest on the part of the research community to attract public interest to areas of research thought to be useful in an aging population.” (Birren, 2002)

References

Associated Press. (2004, September 7). Ageism in America [As boomers age, bias against the elderly becomes hot topic] (Health/Aging). Retrieved from MSNBC: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/5868712/

Bernstein, C., Dennis, E. E., Grossman, L. K., Levy, B. R., McCann, L. A., Rix, S. et al. (Authors). (2006). Ageism in america, Anti-Ageism taskforce (International Longevity Center, p. 121).

Birren, J. (2002). Gerontology. In Encyclopedia of public health (Gerontology, the study of aging). Retrieved from encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3404000376.html

Cavanaugh, J. C., & Blanchard-Fields, F. (2006). Adult development and aging, fifth edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Thomson Learning.

Doyle, B. (1997, April 17). Mythology. Retrieved from Encyclopedia Mythica™: http://www.pantheon.org/articles/m/mythology.html

Gist, Yvonne J.; Hetzel, Lisa I. (U S. Census Bureau). (2004). We the people: Aging in the united states (P. 11) (This report provides a portrait of the social and economic characteristics of the population aged 65 and over in the united states at the national level.1 it is part of the census 2000  special reports series that presents several demographic, social, and economic  characteristics collected from census 2000.). Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/prod/2004pubs/censr-19.pdf

Haslam, A. A. (2004). Stereotypes. In A. Kuper & J. Kuper (Eds.), The social science encyclopeadia (3rd ed.). New York: Routledge.

Kotz, D. (February 20, 2009). 5 Common Myths About Aging: If you age well, you shouldn’t have to worry about becoming frail and senile [Best Health: Boomer Health]. Retrieved from http://health.usnews.com/articles/health/baby-boomer-health/2009/02/20/5-common-myths-about-aging.html

Lantz, D. (2009, December 1). Common myths of aging: What’s your aging iQ? [Questionairre to help you test your knowledge of the facts about aging.]. Retrieved from Integrated Psychology Associates: http://www.ipasite.com/MythsofAging.html

Merriam-Webster. (2009). Definition of myth from the merriam-Webster online dictionary [Definition of myth from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary with audio pronunciations, thesaurus, Word of the Day, and word games.]. Retrieved from Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Myth

Merriam-Webster. (2009). Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary [Definition of stereotype from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary with audio pronunciations, thesaurus, Word of the Day, and word games.]. Retrieved from Marriam-Webster: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/stereotype

Principato, M. (2009, December 4). Over the hill, getting old, senior citizen humor – old age jokes cartoons and funny photos. Retrieved from pmcaregivers.com: http://www.pmcaregivers.com/Humor.htm

Rowe, J. W., & Kahn, R. L. (2009). Breaking down the myths of aging : Successful aging [The topic of aging is durably encapsulated in a layer of myths in our society. And, like most myths, the ones about aging include a confusing blend of truth and fancy. We have compressed six of the most familiar of the aging myths into single-sentence”]. Retrieved  from eNotalone: You are not alone. Articles and forums about relationships and personal growth: http://www.enotalone.com/article/4586.html

Sather, J. (2008, January 28). Retire these 10 myths of aging. Retrieved from Healthline (licensed from StayWell): http://www.healthline.com/sw/wl-retire-these-10-myths-of-aging

Tornstam, L. (2007). Stereotypes of old people persist : A Swedish “Facts on aging quiz” in a 23-year comparative perspective. International Journal of Ageing and Later Life (Linköping University Electronic Press), 2(1), 33-59. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.3384/ijal.1652-8670.072133