There are so many myths about aging that have become stereotypes, to the point that even older adults have come to believe they are true.
Well, our mission is to debunk those myths and give you the truths about what happens as we all, G-d willing, become older. It is important, as these stereotypes frame prejudice against older adults. It will often result in ageism, which is discrimination against the older population. Much worse, many older adults internalize these myths and are hindered from reaching their full potential in what should be productive and meaningful years. When it comes to our emotional health and well being we can take our cue from President Franklin D. Roosevelt who said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”.
The Big Myths
First, let’s tackle the biggest myth of them all! This one claims that once we reach 65 years of age, we all become the same and are unable to change. The reality is that most of us become more of what we always were our whole lives. The capacity to change is not based on age. In fact, emotional intelligence often increases with age, providing older adults with the emotional stability needed to make changes in their lives. Additionally, aging has its own stages: young, middle and old. Each of these stages provides opportunities and challenges for growth and development. Major accomplishments can be achieved throughout all of life’s stages.
Another myth is that as we age, we begin to suffer from psychological problems and become obsessed with death. Part of this myth is that depression and anxiety are natural parts of aging, and that all older adults experience either one or both. In reality, people experience quite the opposite. Studies show that older adults are happy with their lives and feel a sense of satisfaction. They look forward to their senior years with anticipation. Interestingly, older adults are less likely to report feelings of depression or anxiety than younger people. Serious depression is often related to a physical illness such as a stroke, heart disease or a traumatic event, such as the loss of a loved one.
Is senility and dementia wide spread among older adults? The reality is that only 10 percent of older adults are living with some form of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Dr. John Murphy, in his essay on aging in December of 2019, states that only 3.6% of U.S. adults between 64 and 74 have dementia, including Alzheimer’s. As we age, we experience some cognitive loss, such as forgetfulness, usually in the form of short-term memory loss. “Where did I put my keys?” “Why did I come into this room?” This is quite normal, so don’t worry if grandpa or grandma mixes up the siblings’ names or cannot remember the movie they saw last week (or an hour ago). It is a common part of aging. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH) website, short term memory loss is termed “mild forgetfulness - often a normal part of aging- not serious memory problems”. The NIH recommends speaking to a doctor if there are concerns about more serious memory or cognitive declines.
There is a myth that as we age our emotional needs change. This, too, is false. Throughout the life cycle, emotional needs evolve appropriately to the age and stage of development. Older adults crave emotional connections just like everyone else. They love to hold hands and hug their loved ones, as that provides them the emotional bond they crave. Additionally, the myth that older adults lose interest in physical intimacy is incorrect, too. Frequency may decline, but the need for physical intimacy is very important and can be manifested in many ways.
Exercise, contrary to many people’s belief, is very important for older adults. Certainly, it should be age appropriate, as well as individually planned. Walking or light exercise along with fresh air can add to the quality of life and enable older adults to live their lives more fully. Exercise also releases endorphins and dopamine, which are both very helpful, natural anti-depression remedies. Maintaining regular doctor appointments and taking precautionary vaccines are important parts of a sound mind-body health program. Remaining socially active with family and friends is crucial for positive emotional health, as isolation is one of the main causes of depression.
Many believe that addiction is not a problem among older adults. This, however, is not a myth. Unfortunately, older adults may suffer from a variety of addictions. Some are because they had addiction problems their whole lives. Others may be because loneliness, grief, or physical pain led many to self-medicate. Prescription drug abuse can also be a very serious problem, so doctors should be aware of their patient’s drug regimen and usage. Medications should not be discontinued without the approval of a medical professional, but drugs that are discontinued from treatment should be disposed of immediately.
Another “myth” that is, unfortunately, true is that physical health problems can trigger or exacerbate mental health problems, which can lead to depression and/or anxiety.
Ageism is also a true “myth.” This is a major societal problem, in which younger adults think that old people are old, set in their ways and are at the end of their lives. Why bother with them? They have no real value to society. This brings us back to our first myth. People are living longer and are healthy in both mind and body. As we get older, we have experience, wisdom and have developed a strong resilience to the shocks of the time. These are gifts that older folks can share with their family, community and society, which can be expressed through civic and community activity, family involvement, volunteering and the workplace.
Ageism still lingers regarding therapy and older adults, even in the mental health community. Many believe that older adults would not benefit from counseling or therapy, which is entirely false. As we age, we face many life changes and transitions, including retirement, loss, bereavement, loneliness, marital and individual issues. Counseling and therapy can make a world of difference. Using a strength-based method of therapy, the therapist can use their client’s strengths of wisdom and experience and emotional growth to help those in therapy. But strength-based therapy is only one method. A study by Suma Chand, PhD, and George T. Grossberg, MD, states that “Evidence has established cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) as an effective intervention …when treating geriatric patients.” The therapist can help bring family and community resources to support the therapeutic process. Family members can benefit greatly from counseling to understand what the older person is going through, so they can be extra support, as opposed to being absorbed by the problems. Therapy can also be helpful in challenging the negative stereotypes and feelings many older adults have because of these wide held false beliefs.
SOME QUICK MYTHS DEBUNKED
- OLDER FOLKS NEED LESS SLEEP -FALSE
- OLDER FOLKS CAN’T LEARN NEW THINGS- FALSE
- OLDER FOLKS CAN’T QUIT SMOKING-FALSE
- OLDER FOLKS CAN’T LOSE WEIGHT-FALSE
- OLDER FOLKS ARE LESS CREATIVE – FALSE
- OLDER FOLKS CAN’T CHANGE NEGATIVE BEHAVIORS- FALSE
We started by saying that these myths are harmful because they create biases and prejudices against older adults. Unfortunately, these myths can also harm us as we age. This is because we may internalize these negative attitudes and allow them to impact the quality of our lives and our relationships. So, let’s reject these negative stereotypes of older adults and celebrate this time of our lives and the lives of our loved ones. As Mark Twain has said, “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” The experience and wisdom gained through the process of aging can be a powerful tool as we enter this wonderful stage of life.
Douglas Balin, LMSW, MPA is in private practice and can be reached at 646-206-3968 or email@example.com