Five great myths of ageing

Have older adults given up on hopes, dreams and sex? Not so, says a recent book with research that busts these stupid five myths on ageing.

As we get older, we are often pigeonholed as ‘this’ or ‘that’ – and it’s usually pretty negative stuff. So here are five mythbusters to help you fight the false claims and the discrimination that sits beneath them. Authored by academics Joan T Erber and Lenore T. Szuchman, Great Myths of Aging shines a light on the misconceptions about how we act, feel and think as we grow older. And most of the research shows it’s a pretty positive journey.

1. Older adults have given up on hopes and dreams
We all need to have hope, but it is a common perception that as we age, we give up on hopes and dreams. Not so. A study in 2002 that interviewed those aged from 70 to 103 about hopes and fears for the future revealed dynamic ‘possible selves’. But whereas younger people showed interest in careers and occupations, older respondents showed interest in health, physical functioning and leisure pursuits – i.e. the emphasis moved to a desire to remain healthy and independent, rather than be managing director of the world. Makes sense?

2. Older people are set in their ways
This myth is easily challenged, but it’s helpful to start with a definition of what it really means to be set in your ways. One description is a lack of openness to new experiences. And there is a wealth of evidence to show many older adults can’t wait to retire to have the time and opportunity to try many new things. But it is a fact that possibilities can become restricted as we age – the ability to be a supermodel or win Wimbledon – so many older adults have naturally trimmed their ambitions to suit the real options in their lives. Wanting things to be done in a certain way may also be interpreted as becoming set in your ways, but this may also merely be a sign that, if it’s not broken, why fix it.

Authors Erber and Szuchman also note that older people are quite often forced into radical changes by life events, such as widowhood, poor health, and loss of family and friends, so they adapt to new nutritional patterns, exercise habits, mobility or lack thereof, and the need to relocate. A case could be made that older adults become used to adopting new ways of doing things all through their senior years.

3. Growing old is depressing
Recent American research suggests that older adults suffer from depression at a lower rate than younger age groups, particularly those aged 18–24 years. Some studies have noted a decline in depression as people age. And some have commented that “in view of the personal losses, physical illnesses and functional disabilities that commonly befall older age groups, it is surprising that major depression tends to decline rather than increase with advanced age.”

Sadly, these numbers do not hold in aged-care facilities, where a higher proportion of depression in the elderly is recorded. Perhaps the question is, then, not whether older people are naturally more depressed (they’re not), but what can be done to make life more cheerful for those in aged-care facilities?

4. Older people are no longer interested in sex
Despite the wealth of research undertaken on this topic, in general “there is no evidence that older people lose interest in sex” is the conclusion. Various studies undertaken have show adults aged 65 and over remain sexually active, with vaginal intercourse always or usually part of this activity. Barriers are not due to age – but more to the difficulty of finding a partner. Heterosexual women outnumber men from age 40, and by age 85, the ratio is two women for every one man. Just because younger people do not like to think about older parents or grandparents enjoying sex, it doesn’t mean it’s not happening!

5. Older people are more cautious
Particularly in the realm of new technology, older people get very bad press when it comes to having a go. How many jokes have we seen about grandpa using the iPad as a chopping block, etc., etc.? This then leads many to believe that older people find it hard to make decisions. Findings on this topic are interesting. Laboratory tests of reaction times do show older adults take longer than younger ones to react to a variety of stimuli. But this is not the same as decision-making time, where older adults were shown to reach faster decisions as they chose to consider less data than younger adults did. “In short, prior to making a decision, the older retirees did not consider all of the possible alternatives to the extent that the young adults did, which would indicate that they were less cautious.”

The above information is a very brief summary of the 37 ageing myths that are busted in the research reported in Great Myths of Aging, Joan T Erber and Lenore T Szuchman, John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2015.

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