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Medical Exam Can Eliminate Doubts

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Question: My children want me to move into a retirement facility which I am resisting.  I’d rather not be with all of those old people.  Just the thought of it depresses me.   At 75, my children believe I am old, and quite honestly I resent it.  They suggest that my current car is the last new car I’ll be driving and assume I will become frail or give in to some scam artist.  How can I make them understand I am still full of life and essentially in charge?

Answer: No one likes to be judged as “less than.”  And most would rather have plans made with them rather than for them.

Given your situation, a few issues seem evident.  The first is the assumption your children are making about you, which may or may not be true.  They are questioning your ability and competency.

To determine your fitness and capabilities, an exam by your family physician or a geriatrician could provide the objective analysis of “how you are doing.”  That’s one way to determine if your self-assessment is valid.  Although most people are aware about how they are feeling and what they are able to do, a third party evaluation may eliminate doubts.

A second issue deals with assuming that residents of retirement communities or facilities are have nothing to offer. That’s not the case.  If you find a residence that initially appeals to you, check in as a guest for a week or two and sample the environment.   You may be surprised.

The third issue has to do with not wanting to be with “old people.”  We often hear comments about “those old people” as though they are aliens who have little to do with the rest of the world.Let’s think about what “old” actually means.

Formally, “old” is having lived or existed for a relatively long time.  Why should that be a problem?  Unfortunately, the term “old” in the U.S. has earned a negative connotation, except when referring to cheese, artifacts, antiques or vintage wines.

Sociologist Erdman B. Palmore in his classic book “Ageism: Negative and Positive,” originally published in 1990, presents several negative associations to the term “old” that frequently lead to stereotypes. These include older adults as sick, impotent, unattractive, suffering from mental decline, useless, isolated and depressed.

Palmore also describes some positive stereotypes such as being kind, wise, dependable, happy and affluent.

Note stereotypes are commonly held beliefs about specific social groups.  In this case, it’s older people.

If one has a relationship with several older adults who are stubborn and only discuss their ailments and doctor visits, one might be tempted to generalize that experience and judge all older people as rigid, complaining and self-centered.

What we need to do is to change the dialogue by omitting “old” as a descriptor and finding a substitute word that describes the person.  Instead of saying “I don’t want to be with those “old people,” one could say, “I don’t want to be with people who complain, are rigid and dull.”  Rather, “I want to be with people – regardless of their age – who are vital, interesting and curious about life.

Age stereotypes are bad for young persons who harbor them.  Based on four decades of data from the Baltimore Longitudinal Study, Becca Levy, an associate professor of epidemiology and psychology at the Yale School of Public Health, found that young healthy people, age 18-49 who stereotyped older adults were at risk for poor heart health later in life.

Results could not be explained by smoking, family history or cholesterol.  One explanation is that younger people internalize stereotypes of older age and may mature into the caricature of old age they are dreading. Perhaps what is operating is a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Thank you for your good question.  Consider that doctor evaluation, sleuth some of those retirement communities and rethink what you mean when you refer to “those old people.”

And by the way, the term “older” works better than “old.” Hopefully these few suggestions will be helpful in making your point with your children.   Best wishes to you.

Copyright 2010 Helen Dennis. All rights reserved.

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