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Ageing is a term used to describe the physical, psychological and social changes that occur to an individual over time. While most individuals possess their own interpretation of ageing, the issues and challenges faced by the older population is a topic commonly misunderstood. This can be due to generational differences in morals, values, beliefs and a lack of understanding, leading to various stereotypes, prejudices and assumptions of the elderly. This paper will explore my own personal understanding of the issues and challenges faced by the elderly and how my assumptions compare to current evidence based research and the information obtained through a conversation with an elderly person.
Prior to the conversation with my 71 year old grandfather, who will be referred to as George, I had formed various assumptions from my attitudes and existing knowledge about what Georges’ primary concerns and issues were at this stage in his life. To better understand George’s situation it was helpful to think about myself in 50 years’ time, and what would be primary concerns for me if I were 70 years old. The topics I thought about in relation to the issues and challenges of ageing included deteriorating health, cognitive function, physical ability, and family and relationships. I chose to focus on the issues which I would consider to be most concerning if I were an elderly person, which primarily pertained to mental and physical health and the social aspects of ageing.
Given that I am technically still classified as a teenager, my experience with ageing is rather limited. This leads me to believe that many of my attitudes and beliefs about ageing may have been heavily influenced by popular stereotypes. As Kim Vickers of the University of California explores in her research article ‘Ageing and the Media’, the media can heavily influence the opinions of young person’s, such as myself, by portraying ageing in a negative light (Vickers, 2007). I believe that when you age your cognitive function and ability declines, for example, the ability to accurately memorise and recall information becomes less ‘sharp’ and reliable. I also believe that along with cognitive function, you become frail and your ability to be physically active becomes more difficult, which includes anything from walking the dog, going to the supermarket, to engaging in sexual activities. Respect is one thing that I think can be positive with ageing. I believe that when you become older and wiser your opinion and knowledge will be increasingly respected, especially by those who are not as wise and knowledgeable. In summary, looking at my initial attitudes toward ageing, it is quite apparent that I have formed, through my minimal life experience, a relatively limited and negative view of ageing, which is most likely due to my lack of understanding, and that our society as a whole places greater value on youth, than on ageing (Oregon Department of Human Services, 2012).
During the interview with George, I discovered that a number of the assumptions I held about the elderly were not as accurate as I had thought. The first and most surprising answer I received from George was in regards to having more respect from others. George stated that he did not believe he was treated with any more respect, as he aged. This was a direct contradiction to what I had considered to be one of the positives of growing old, and I found this to be most surprising. This made me think of why George may feel that way. Perhaps it is due to the changing attitudes of youth toward the elderly, they do not recognise respecting an elderly person, as much as previous generations have done. It may also be an individual thing, where George has simply not noticed any change in the way people regard and respect him.
There may be a number of reasons for this, however it appears evident that one of the primary contributing factors is the change in generational attitudes, particularly those of the young toward the elderly. Professor Jared Diamond noted that one of the reasons for the shifting generational attitudes may be due to the rapid changes in technology (Diamond, 2011). Predating the use of written records, the repositories of knowledge the elderly members of society possessed in their memories were once considered vital to pass onto future generations, for example, the telling of stories to children. However, with advancement in technology new resources have become available, that previously did not exist, such as; television, the internet, and mass media. The ease of access and availability to this endless source of information and knowledge has, in a sense, replaced the role of the elderly within some societies and, therefore, may have led to less respect by the young towards the old.
Another aspect of the newer generations of elderly people is the increasing life expectancy which can be viewed as a positive thing, however, increased age correlates with increased susceptibility to chronic diseases, especially those which affect the brain and cognitive function, such as dementia (Buttrose, 2011). One of the expectations I had of old age is that of declining cognitive function. When asked about day to day life George stated that he did not particularly feel old, however, he had noticed himself slowing down. George explained that he is aware of his physical and mental capabilities not being as sharp, as perhaps they once were, however he does not feel or think of himself as ‘old’. In an attempt to further my understanding on the effects ageing has on cognitive function, I investigated the work of Melissa Lee Phillips regarding her research into cognitive ability in the elderly.
Melissa Lee Phillips published an article in the American Psychological Associations (APA) ‘Monitor on Psychology’ segment that compares the cognitive function of the brain in youth and the elderly (Phillips, 2011). The adult brain has long been thought to be most efficient during youth, however in Phillips’ article she points to research that contradicts that information. The research shows that the maturing mind actually retains many of the skills learnt during youth, and continues to develop new strengths. The ageing brain is also capable of ‘rewiring’ itself and has proven to improve in various areas, such as being less neurotic, calmer, and better at sorting through social situations (Phillips, 2011). Cognitive neuroscientist, Patricia Reuter-Lorenz, PhD, of the University of Michigan stated that “there is an enduring potential for plasticity, reorganization and preservation of capacities”, providing further evidence to support this new theory (Reuter-Lorenz, 2012). This new evidence helps disprove the stereotypes of ageing, such as the common proverb, ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’.
Another study titled the ‘Seattle Longitudinal Study’ conducted at the University of Washington in Seattle, uncovered a large amount of new data on ageing and it’s effective on the brain. The research team leader Sherry Willis, PhD, states that the results show that while memory and recall skills begin to decline, skills such as verbal abilities, spatial reasoning, simple math and abstract reasoning showed marked improvement (Schaie, 2013). Relating the influx of new research back to my perspective on ageing, it would appear that whilst there are some undesirable effects on cognitive ability, there are also positives aspects to the ageing brain. I believe the way ageing is portrayed by the media in society is a narrow view which primarily focuses on the negatives of ageing. This view is supported by the findings of Doctor Jeanne Holmes in her paper ‘Successful Ageing: A Critical Analysis’, published in the Journal of the American Society of Ageing (Holmes, 2009).
Similar to cognitive function, I had assumed that due to elderly people having increased fragility, decreased physical strength and the body ‘slowing down’ due to ageing organ systems, it would cause the libido of elderly persons to significantly decrease, if not cease to exist at all. Although I did not ask my grandfather about his sexual activities, I did do my own further research into the topic. Judith Horstman provides insight on sex and the elderly in her book ‘The Scientific American Healthy Ageing Brain’, in which she states “Recent studies and surveys show the brains of those well over 60 years old want and enjoy sex” (Horstman, 2012). This information directly contradicts what I had previously believed. In the United States, a national survey was conducted on men and women aged between the ages 75 and 85 to determine the level of sexual activity in the elderly population. The results showed that three-quarters of male participants and approximately half of female participants said they were still interested in sex, and were still sexually active (Pew Research Center, 2010).
Growing old is an inevitable and natural process, and I think it is important to keep in mind that we will all be considered ‘old’ one day. Some may define ageing as the changes that increase the likelihood of death, which may be true, however after the conversation with my grandfather I can see that ageing is not necessarily a negative thing. I now understand how my own opinions have been influenced by popular culture, the media and society. Ageing can change many aspects of a person, and contrary to what may be portrayed in the media, these changes are not necessarily negative. Attributes such as physical agility may decline with age, others such as knowledge and wisdom continue to expand. It is my understanding, that by leading a healthy lifestyle and actively participating in all that life has to offer, one can live a fulfilled and worthwhile life well into old age. I believe that, much like fine wine, quality of life can increase with age.
Buttrose, Ita (2011).Dementia Across Australia: 2011-2050. Sydney: Deloitte Access Economics Pty Ltd.
Diamond, J. (2011). DOCUMENT 163: Jared Diamond on Consumption, Population, and Sustainability‘, Credo Reference Collections, EBSCOhost, viewed 4th August 2014.
Holmes, J. (2009). Successful ageing: a critical analysis: a dissertation submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the School of Sociology, Social Policy, and Social Work at Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand.
Horstman, J. (2012).The Scientific American healthy ageing brain. 1st ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Oregon Department of Human Services, (2012).Myths and Stereotypes of Ageing. Oregon: Oregon Department of Human Services. Available at: http://www.oregon.gov/dhs/apd-dd-training/EQC Training Documents/Myths and Stereotypes of Aging.pdf
Pew Research Center, (2010).Growing Old in America: Expectations vs. Reality. A Social & Demographic Trends Report. Washington, DC.
Phillips, M. (2011). The mind at midlife.American Psychological Association (APA), 42(4), p.38.
Reuter-Lorenz, PhD, P. (2012). Cognitive neuropsychology of the ageing brain.American Psychological Association (APA), 17(3), pp.177-182.
Schaie, K. (2013).Developmental influences on adult Intelligence. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press.
Vickers, K. (2007). Ageing and the media: Yesterday, today, and tomorrow.Californian Journal of Health Promotion, 5(3), pp.100–105.
Appendix 1 – Expectations Prior to Conversation
Appendix 2 – Conversation Questions and Answers
George. Grandfather. 71 years old. White/Caucasian. Married.
Appendix 2 – Conversation Questions and Answers Cont.
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