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Inside the Brown Bag: The Aging Stereotype?

By Peg Brown

Recently I opened an email from a colleague that included a New York Times (NYT) article entitled “Thriving at Age 70 and Beyond.” (Brody, 4/25/16) As I am now approaching my 71st birthday, I paused for a moment and scanned the article. I figured I could use all the help I could get. Brody had been inspired to write her article by the recently published book entitled “70 Candles! Women Thriving in Their 8th Decade.” (Giddon and Cole). Okay, full disclosure, I read the article closely, looking for arrows that would point to the fountain of youth. Reading the fact that 25 percent of American women age 65 and older could expect to live into their 90s, I started to take notes!

What I didn’t expect was to find a new phrase for me—aging stereotype. I certainly am aware of stereotypes that are related to race, gender, socio-economic status, geography and other demographic indicators, but aging stereotype was a new concept to me.

Further research indicated that aging stereotypes are just what you’d expect. Beliefs about characteristics and behaviors that for most of our lives, we associate with a definition of “elderly.” Could I have been holding these beliefs for most of my life? I’m ashamed to admit I have.

As a teenager and college student of the era in which the mantra was “don’t trust anyone over 30,” and with three living grandparents in their 70s, I did believe that there were certain characteristics and behaviors that formed my idea of what elderly was. For example, my grandmother wore her long grey hair in a tight bun at the base of her neck, until she eventually cut it into the short, always permed, and “blue rinsed” look. The outward mark of “elderly.”

This is the same grandmother who wore a house dress and full hand-sewn apron made from one of my grandfather’s shirts over a full pale pink laced corset, albeit a much larger version that that sported by Scarlett O’Hara, garters and “hose” to do her housework. I also assumed all elderly were “frugal” as grandma saved balls of string, brown paper bags, reused “tin foil,” ironed and recycled wrapping paper from which we always carefully removed the offending tape, used those little plastic hats on bowls of leftovers and made her own soap with lye in the cellar set tub—which, by the way, she never wrapped in paper so that it would harden and therefore last longer. Oh, and did I mention that she made my grandfather’s and father’s boxer shorts, also out of old shirts, which she proceeded to launder and iron—not with spray starch, but with water stored in a discarded soda bottle topped by a red cap sprinkle head?

Did I consider her a grandmother who, if not forced to leave school in the 8th grade to take care of four sisters and a brother, might have had dreams and ambitions of being a nurse or aspired to move beyond the confines of her kitchen, flour and rolling pin? No—because almost all of the women who were grandmother’s age were the same—or so I thought—stereotypes of aging? As I examine those early years, I’m ashamed to admit “yes.”

Because I had a mother who always held a full-time job once we entered school, and because I selected an all woman’s college, far from home, these early stereotypes might have mellowed. But, I’m willing to admit, that my own experience with an aging female extended family and my own mother’s lodging in assisted care and skilled nursing facilities, did not help in thwarting my continued belief in “elderly stereotypes”—those associated with ill-heath, declining mental and physical capacities, extended illnesses, impatience, loneliness, incompetence and incontinence ….

As I did a bit more research, I was surprised to find that there are several academic, scientific studies that have looked at how aging stereotype can have an impact on our own lives. Researchers have suggested that over the years, we have internalized these “elderly stereotypes”, and that these long held internalized images can have an impact of our own life expectancy.

A Yale study entitled “Longevity Increased by Positive Self-Perceptions of Aging,” (Levy, Slade, Kunkel, Kasl), found that “older individuals with more positive self-perceptions of aging,” even if developed over decades, “lived 7.5 years longer that those with less positive self-perceptions of aging.” The authors of this article found that this advantage persisted, even “after age, gender, socioeconomic status, loneliness and functional health” were considered. Or, in more concrete terms, “the median survival for those with the more positive self-perceptions of aging (based on an identified base line) was 22.6 additional years, whereas those with negative self-perceptions of aging was just 15 years.”

Okay, now I’m definitely taking notes!

I, like most of you, have heard how we can improve our life expectancy by exercise, eating right (a definition which changes with each new fad), maintaining relationships, challenging our minds…yada, yada, yada. We have also all been cautioned that genetic factors are something we can’t really change. But what can we do about these long internalized negative perceptions about what it means to be elderly is another education process. Where to start? By taking a quiz of course!

Knowledge of Aging Questions (questions from a Facts on Aging Quiz developed by Breytspraak and Badura—one of many floating out there on the web). True or False

The majority (more than 50%) of older adults will become senile (memory loss, disorientation, dementia) during old age.
Most older adults are typically asexual (no desire or capacity for intimacy).
Declines in all five senses normally occur at old age.
Intelligence tends to decline at old age.
In general, most older adults tend to be pretty much alike.
The majority of older adults say that they are lonely.
Old age can be characterized as a second childhood.
It is difficult for older adults to learn new things. (Leading, of course, to all kinds of workplace challenges.)
Most older people live in nursing homes.

The only statement above that is TRUE, is that related to the decline in the 5 senses.

Now, give this quiz to your grandchildren. Are these elderly stereotypes alive and well? I’m betting they are.

It’s up to us to change the culture of negative perceptions of aging, not only internally, but by showing that the new 70 is not the “old” 70. Remember it can be worth an additional 7.5 years—maybe long enough to watch your great-grandchildren graduate from high school!”

Author’s Note: Recent headline in the ProJo: “Elderly Couple to be Evicted from Apartment.” I read the article—the couple were in their 70s. We clearly have more work to do!!