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Expectations Don’t Always Match Realities of Aging

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Question: I just turned 70. Friends and acquaintances are surprised I am “that old.” I’ve had comments such as “Wow, you don’t look your age” or “I would never have guessed.” What do people expect a woman my age to look like, or do, in her seventh decade? I am flattered – while at the same time annoyed that the expectation is so low. Apparently, I am the exception to the negative image folks have of a 70-year-old woman. Your thoughts?

Answer: This “age thing” is complicated. It taps the upside and downside of aging. It involves people’s personal experiences and fears about getting older. And, unfortunately, age and aging still convey negative stereotypes.

The expectations and realities about aging often don’t match. The Pew Research Center issued a report in 2009 on social and demographic trends on aging, based on responses from a nationally representative sample of 2,969 adults. According to the report, “Getting older isn’t nearly as bad as people think it will be. Nor is it quite as good.”

Here are some of the study results:

Markers of old age: About 80 percent of respondents said that one becomes old at age 85. Next on the list of indicators of old age were not being able to live independently, followed by not being able to drive a car. Having grandchildren was considered a marker of old age by 15 percent of respondents.

The grandchildren marker is interesting since the average age of becoming a first-time grandparent is about 48; the average age of all grandparents is about 64. Turning 75 was considered an indicator of old age by about two-thirds of those surveyed, and frequently forgetting familiar names was selected by half of respondents.

Differences among the generations:
When a person “becomes old” varied by age group. The 18 to 29-year-olds said that occurred at age 60. Those of middle age put the threshold of becoming old at closer to 70. And those 65 and older said the average person does not become old until turning 74.

Frequently forgetting familiar names was considered the point of becoming old by two-thirds of those age 18 to 29. Less than half of adults 30 and older agreed.

All generations agreed that the following markers were indicators of old age: failing health; inability to live independently; inability to drive; and difficulty with stairs.

Growing older, feeling younger:
“The older people get, the younger they feel – relatively speaking,” according to the report.

Among 18- to 29-year-olds surveyed, about half said they felt their age; a quarter felt older and a quarter felt younger. In contrast, among those 65 and older, 60 percent felt younger than their age; about one-third felt their exact age and just 3 percent felt older than their chronological age.

The downside of aging: There is no question that aging is not always rosy. About one in four people among the 65-and-older group reported some memory loss. One in five was seriously ill and one in five reported “no sexual activity” and “often feeling sad or depressed.” Ten percent said they feel they aren’t needed or are a burden to others.

Here’s a most interesting piece: The number of younger and middle-age adults who anticipated age-related problems is higher than the number of older adults who report such problems. Aging may be better than we think.

The upside of aging:
Among those 65 and older, the overarching benefit of aging was more time to enjoy the family, followed by hobbies, more financial security and not having to work. (Note: This study was published 15 months ago. If it were repeated in today’s economic climate, views about financial security and work might be different.)

How long would you like to live?: The average answer was 89 (that compares to a 2002 AARP study, in which the average age was 92). About one in five respondents wanted to live into their 90s.

From the same study, I selected three other markers of “old age” that fortunately can be modified or postponed.

Feeling of not being needed: According to the study, those who felt unneeded were perceived as being old.  In our younger and middle years, we’ve had roles with expectation coming from our employers, children and often parents.  The needs were clear.  But as we age and these roles have been successfully fulfilled, who needs us now?

There are at least three ways of approaching this dilemma.  The first is to consider how to make a contribution: in service, philanthropy, creativity, care, support or leadership – the list is endless. The second is to determine what is available that piques your interest.  Third, if you cannot find an existing organization that stirs your passion, become a social entrepreneur and create or do something that you believe is important.

Being needed, however, does not always relate to an organization.  Helping individuals on a one-to-one basis can provide fulfillment.  Taking a friend to a doctor appointment, reading to a child, cooking for a neighbor who is ill, delivering Meals on Wheels, or taking care of a grandchild all require a caring person who appreciates being needed.

Forgetting familiar names: Forgetting names was associated with being old. Fortunately, there are ways to meet this challenge.  Dr. Gary Small, a neuroscientist and director of the UCLA Memory Clinic and of the UCLA Center on Aging, outlines steps in his book “The Memory Bible” (Hyperion, 2002).

Here are just a few:

  • Repeat the person’s name during the initial conversation.
  • Note if the person’s name reminds you of someone else with the same name.
  • If the name is complicated, ask the person to spell it.
  • Use the person’s name when saying goodbye.
  • Determine if the name has meaning and think of a mental image. For example, names such as Carpenter, Katz, Bishop, White or Silver can easily convey a mental picture.  The name Bill conjures an image of a dollar bill; the name Washington makes one think of a monument.
  • Use skills of “look, snap and connect.”  Listen to the name and look at (visualize) the name; snap a visual image of the name; and then connect the name and the face.

Having difficulty with stairs: Problems with mobility suggested that a person was old.  This difficulty may be due to diseases such as osteoporosis or arthritis.  It also may be due to lack of muscle strength.  And losing muscle mass is part of the normal aging process.  The good news is that we can build strength at any age with strength training exercises.

What is the message?  Although aging is a “declining” process, there are ways to slow that process so we can live fully.

Being judged according to age markers is less important than living to our maximum ability and capacity.  The phrase, “Be all you can be” was a recruiting slogan for the U.S. Army, but that slogan applies to each of us as we grow older.  Aging is inevitable.  How we age is not.

Thank you for your good question and best wishes for a wonderful next decade.

Copyright 2010 Helen Dennis.  All rights reserved.

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