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L.J. Rohan

L.J. Rohan

Gerontologist

MYTH BUSTERS

Myth: Older People Need To Be Spoken To Slower And More Simply

WELL…NOW…LET’S…LOOK…AT…THIS…STEREOTYPE.

Sadly, a term even exists for the adoption of slower and simpler speech patterns when talking to a senior: Elderspeak. The American Psychology Association defines elderspeak as:

Adjustments in speech patterns, such as speaking more slowly or more loudly, shortening sentences or using limited or less complex vocabulary that are sometimes made by younger people when communicating with older adults.*

Younger people too often think that once we become seniors, we unilaterally and instantaneously lose our hearing and become dim-witted; therefore requiring slower and simpler speech patterns. They immediately forget that, just yesterday, we were their respected and revered professors, mentors, or grandparents.

Once someone internalizes the beliefs others hold about her, verses what she believes about herself, the effect on her can be devastating. It results in a loss of self-esteem and self-confidence and worse, the adoption of the belief that she is now somehow less mentally sharp or suffers from hearing loss. She begins to mentally shrink and draw into her world, becoming a shell of her former self.

To be honest, I find the pervasiveness of this behavior toward seniors, especially given the number of seniors in positions of visible power and influence around the world today, astonishing.

WHAT…DO…YOU…THINK?

*Dictionary.apa.org

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Myth: Old People Should Just Get Used To Being Old

I find this one of the most confounding ideas of ageism I have ever come across. Authors Bruce E. Blaine and Kimberly J. McClure Brenchley, in their book, The Psychology of Diversity, note that unlike other minorities—racial, LGBT, women– older people acquire their membership as a senior citizen with no gradual induction into this particular group. We have no time to become accustomed to being older or to understand the ensuing bias younger people hold against seniors.  We are most often not prepared to handle the sudden ageism we experience. However, since younger people feel themselves to be eternally young and fearless, unaware and uncaring of what lies ahead for them, they see the struggle we seniors experience with abrupt stereotyping as a situation we just need to accept: we’re now old. Get over it!

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Myth: Fine Craftsmanship Is Only for The Young

As I read an article about quilting artists in my Craft Magazine, I could feel my heartbeats speeding up, my hackles rising. I was appalled at how the author put her prejudice against older artists so blatantly on display. How could someone think that artistic expression, fine craftsmanship, and intricate needlework are limited to the young?

I have been a part of the creative arts world since I could barely walk. In all of that time, I have looked to older artists for insight, wisdom, and solutions to gnarly problems beyond my skill level. They are the true masters and mentors, and I thank the Heavens for them!

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Myth: Only 12% Of All Older Adults Are Aging Successfully

 “Only 12% of all older adults are aging successfully.” Dr. Bruce Blaine and Dr. Kimberly J. McClure Brenchley, Understanding The Psychology of Diversity (2007, 2017)

My blood pressure has gone up at least 10 points as I write this response to the misguided people who wrote this myth originally in 1986, (John Rowe and Robert Kahn), and those above who continue to perpetuate this myth. It makes me absolutely crazy when seemingly intelligent, educated people (the authors quoted above) buy into flawed research based on what we would now call the “Top Three-Percenters,” which is the only group whose members might qualify for aging successfully. The criteria was so narrow. I disagree with the choice of the word, “successful,” the virtually impossible, near-perfect health conditions Rowe and Kahn put forth, and the fact that books continue to be printed based on erroneous ideas.

Here is the truth as I see it: First, as I have said in my articles and videos, the word “successful” was the wrong word choice from the get-go, and using it sets up the perfect counter-belief for failing at aging (well), if Rowe and Kahn’s rigid criteria is not met. Secondly, almost all the researchers in the years following 1986 challenged this rigid criteria and found it wanting, to the extent that in the last ten years, no one ever qualifies aging in terms of success or failure. Imagine my surprise finding not only the term, but the accepted definition of the term, “successful aging” used in a book updated in 2017. And lastly, as a gerontologist on the ground, working with seniors, I can tell you that so many of us think we are aging well, despite some limitations. As we also now know, what you believe influences your biology more than any single factor (genetics coming in at 20%) and I’m not about to tell these vibrant seniors they are full of hooey!

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Myth: People Like Their Bodies Less When They Get Old

This is a great myth to bust, especially since our youth-obsessed culture and every media outlet would lead us to believe that seniors despite their ages, only loved their bodies when they were young. However, the results of the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index poll, gives us a more accurate view of reality.

After interviewing 85,145 American adults, pollsters reveal that our perceptions of our bodies actually peaks when we reach our seventh decade, clearly telling us we like what we see in the mirror when we reach our seventies and eighties.

I feel much better knowing the truth, don’t you?

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Myth: All Older (OLD) People Are the Same

mythbuster older people

When questioned, many younger people have very limited views of older people. Pioneer researcher, Dr. Mary Lee Hummert found this to be true when comparing the views of younger and older people. Further research expanding on Dr. Hummert’s findings show that younger people think seniors are all pretty much the same. This is especially true for older seniors, who get distilled into having the same few traits. From the multitude of facets making up the personality, disposition, and physical attributes of any person, younger people condense this host of identifying characteristics into a few simplified traits which all older people share. Of course, the older adults in the studies cited many more nuanced aspects, and a far more complex view of themselves and folks older than themselves.

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Myth: Learning A Language Is For The Young

While we know children pick up languages as easily as they pick up dirt from playing outside, the myth that seniors can’t learn a new language, seems a particularly pervasive one many people still believe. Older brains have more data to retrieve, and so sometimes sifting through the files can take a tiny bit longer. But, scientists and the research tell us seniors are just as capable of learning a new language as a person of any age.

In fact, because the years of multi-multi-tasking are behind us– raising children, working full time, taking care of the house, serving on the PTA, the list goes on– life is a little slower. As I have discussed before, we are generally happier now than in our young and middle years. All these changes create an opening in our cognitive function, which allows us to feed our brains fresh information, cue the French, Spanish, or Japanese language lessons. Also, our desire to master Arabic makes the learning this time around fun and exciting, verses when we were forced to memorize lists of irregular verbs to pass a test. This new mind-set makes a huge difference by firing up our brains to absorb all the beautiful words in the Italian language.

Bellissimo!

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Myth: Seniors Can’t, Or Are Too Old, To Change

I know we are all happy to learn that the science disputes this myth. Older people have not only the capacity, but so often, the desire to learn new things. Research shows seniors respond well to new stimulation.  We are open to change and embrace the opportunity to explore novel situations, ideas, and activities—all important considerations when looking at a person’s ability and/or desire to adapt to new situations and make informative choices. When exposed to new activities, the real truth is, an older person’s openness to new and novel experiences even increases!

Meditation App - LJ Rohan

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Myth: As People Grow Older, They Become Less Happy

Fifty-five percent of younger people believe this to be true about seniors. Interestingly, the facts are just the opposite: people fifty and younger fall into the highest brackets of unhappy folks, with those very ones making the judgments about older adults being the most unhappy! The twenty to thirty-four age bracket, consistently experiences the greatest levels of unhappiness.  Other negative feelings, such as anger, stress, and worry all show a pronounced improvement with age.

Why are older people, on average, happier and less stressed than younger people? It seems we seniors experience a sense of increased “wisdom” and greater emotional intelligence with age (at least through middle age).  Many studies support the findings that older people have an increased ability to self-regulate their emotions and view their situations more optimistically than younger people. Additionally, older folks recall fewer negative memories than younger adults. We don’t seem to continually run depressing scenarios in our heads. Instead, more often we find a balance, which allows us to appreciate the positive aspects of life rather than letting the negative ones enfold us.

More study is needed to understand this trend, but the signs point to a sizable uptick on the happiness meter after fifty. Now, that’s good news!

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Myth: Seniors Can’t Understand Things As Well As Young People

My first reaction when I read the research on this was, you are kidding, right? It turns out that, sadly, it’s true. There even exists a name for this way of communicating with older adults: elderspeak. The term elderspeak first appeared in the mid-1980s, and since then has entered the lexicon as yet another way to describe discrimination against older people. What is elderspeak? It is (most often) the unconscious practice of younger people to slow down and simplify their speech patterns and word choices when talking to older folks. Younger people also turn up the volume and take on a slightly, or even overt, patronizing tone. Lovely, no?

 The belief at the core of this myth is that somehow when we have some years of life and experience under our belts, and some gray hair, our brains suddenly lose the ability to understand complex sentences, or abstract concepts, or anything else beyond what we learned in fourth grade. The knowledge we acquired in graduate school, or all the technical training we received immediately evaporates and our brains turn to mush, just like the diet we should be on now. I wish I knew where this belief started, as the originator should be put in a pit with angry seniors.

How can we help dispel this myth? We need to reeducate the young, one at a time: Gently, but insistently, let the young person know we still have all our faculties, and that they may speak to you as they would to a contemporary. We must be the change we wish to see in the world.

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Myth: Most Older Adults Live In Nursing Homes And Cannot Get Around By Themselves

This myth makes me so angry I could rip the fender off a tractor-trailer with my pinky– the one on my bad hand. The real truth is that only about 5% of older adults live in nursing homes, and most are totally mobile, according to the statistics from the government’s Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion,5%! With the number of ads showing a family putting the feeble mother-in-law in a home, or a grandparent who needs a nurse around the clock, it is no wonder folks in the US, and especially the younger ones, think all seniors live in Final Acres Retirement Village.

Most seniors today live in their own homes, and many still work, at least part time. Others have downsized into smaller dwellings to enjoy the freedom from routine yard work and household maintenance. Many of these folks are just too busy traveling, enjoying grandchildren, and exploring new hobbies to think about spending any time in a nursing home.

Last season, even Grace & Frankie’s lovely children sent them to a nursing home, and that lasted about five minutes. Seriously, who could believe Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin should be in a home? That scenario is as ridiculous as it is just plain wrong!

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Myth: Dementia Is An Inevitable Result Of Old Age

While young people think all older people get dementia, the facts do not support this belief. A new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research finds dementia only affects 10.5% of adults sixty-five and over. Even more good news to refute this myth comes from a large multi-country European study showing the dementia rate has actually fallen by 23% in the past twenty years, even though people are now living longer!

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Myth: Older Tech Workers Are Less Valued Part II

Here are some final beliefs that need setting right:

Myth #2: Newly-hired Older Tech Workers Are Not Paid Equitably.

According to Visier’s findings, a website to “help organizations create a better future with data,” if you are an older adult, your starting pay is not, on average, lower than that of a younger hire. It seems that new employees are paid the same as more tenured workers, where ever they fall on the age timeline.

Myth # 3: Older Workers In Tech Resign At Higher Rates.

Looking at all the employees on both sides of the forty-year mark, first year resignations among the entire spectrum average 10%, with older workers staying in the job at basically the same rate as younger hires. I found it very interesting that first year resignations among Millennials to be much higher in non-tech industries than in the tech world.

Again, not being in the tech world, I welcome all thoughtful discussion about these beliefs. Thank you!

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Myth: Older Tech Workers Are Less Valued

It is true that the average person working in the technology industry is five years younger than those workers in the non-tech world, leading many of us to believe that younger is more valued in this field. However, according to Visier, a website founded by business analytical experts to help “educate and inspire business users to become data-driven leaders,” when tech geniuses turn forty, the matriculate to the “Tech Sage Age.” These TSAers increasingly receive top ratings for their performance, experience, and mature insights. (You gotta love that!) Interestingly, according to Visier, this is the opposite of the decline in numbers of older top performers in non-tech fields.

I do wonder if this is true for women, as well as men……I would love to hear your thoughtful comments from those in the tech industry!

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Myth: Anti-Aging Is Possible

Let me lay my cards right on the table, I hate the term “anti-aging.” Why? First because there is no such thing, just like there is no such thing as partial forgiveness or being a little pregnant.  Secondly, this term goes to the heart of our cultural problem of ageism—that stereotype of negative attitudes toward older folks. Dr. Jill Chonody, author of Social Work Practices with Older Adults, writes, “Antiaging norms have become a regular part of American culture and as a result they are readily expressed through and reinforced by an “anti-aging movement” which dictates that physical signs of aging should be hidden by “anti-aging products” to cover age-related ‘flaws.’ ” Dr. Chondoy cites stats of a more than 100% increase in surgical and non-surgical procedures (from $80m to $114m), from 1997-2014, adding the last four years to bring it to over $120m. She goes on to say, “The marketing of these products goes without much notice much like greeting cards. No magazine or products are labeled anti-black or anti-woman, but anti-aging is a very common label for commercial products, including books. Why do we spend money on these products, why would we have unnecessary surgery to hide the physical signs of aging? Social messages repeatedly tell us that aging is unattractive and should be avoided at all costs and we believe it without question.”

So, as we all know, there is only one true way not to age, and that isn’t really a very fun alternative 😉

anti-aging
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Myth: There Are No Myths Regarding Aging

I somehow think I should have started these posts with this myth, but sometimes I am a little late to the party—that way you don’t have to stay there as long!  😉

Dr. James Thornton, now professor emeritus at the University of British Colombia, researched the universal practice of creating stories, which over time become “myths” or legends– as in the Loch Ness Monster, King Arthur, Robin Hood, or Paul Bunyan. Traditional myths and folklore defined personal experience. They shaped social life, and offered hope, and meaning to the unexplainable in times when there was little scientific advancement.

However in today’s world, with science influencing every aspect of our lives, current myths of aging strongly influence our present culture. But, like all myths, these anti-aging mythologies are based on half-truths and false knowledge. Unfortunately they are usually stated as culturally accepted stereotypes, in our case, ageist stereotypes.  Current misconceptions of aging often reinforced in the media and the literature of aging are not merely folklore. They are intentionally misrepresented statements pretending to inform, often in order to sell products and services. But in reality these proclamations only reinforce misunderstandings, and give wrong information about aging as experienced by the vast majority of older people.

The good news? As I love to say, there is a sea-changing coming! So many good people and so many different sources from the media (Think “Grace and Frankie,” Sophia Loren’s new movie, and those silver-haired beauties in print and TV ads) are changing the way us older adults are portrayed. All of these create a more realistic picture of what it looks like to have some experience under our belts.

Until next time…Be Vibrant!

myths regarding aging
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Myth: If You Are At High-Risk For Dementia…

You are basically toast; you are going to get it, and you might as well accept it. NO, NO, NO, I say!! Fresh off the press research headed by Dr. Becca R. Levy at Yale studied more than four thousand older, dementia-free folks, and she found that while one quarter of the US population carries the gene (APOEe4), which is one of the strongest risk factors for dementia, less than half of APOEe4 carriers develop dementia.

 Billion dollar question: Why? These are times when I love that various social sciences come together to form a beautiful circle. The answer: having a positive attitude not only staves off developing dementia, it seems to prevent it. Direct from the research paper: “Considerable research has found that positive age beliefs predict better cognitive performance; whereas, negative age beliefs predict worse cognitive performance. The pattern of age beliefs predicting cognition has been supported by cross-cultural, experimental, and longitudinal studies, together with three meta-analyses. Further, a recent study found that negative age beliefs predicted the development of Alzheimer’s disease biomarkers.”

This is worth breaking out the bubbly for AND adopting a new attitude this red-hot minute!

Until next time…Be Vibrant!

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Myth: Aging Makes You Unproductive

The findings from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics breaks this myth wide open. It seems that as the kiddos leave the nest, so do the parents. According to the latest data, a whopping 29% of the population, the highest number of folks who volunteer, begin giving back around age forty-five. This number dips a little to 24% for seniors sixty-five and over. People in the last half of their lives supply an immeasurable number of hours in both helping with child-rearing and volunteering at worthy organizations. Women make up the majority of volunteers, especially in caring for the grand wee ones and elderly parents or relatives, but the men aren’t far behind them in the overall number of volunteering hours.

The contribution of those at mid-life and beyond makes an enormous impact on our society. Heaven save us from where we would be without the blessing of time us older ones have to give. The statistics also show that seniors are the happiest age group of all. Maybe it’s the giving back. Could there be a correlation? I’ll keep that topic for another day.

Until next time…Be Vibrant!

aging makes you unproductive
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Myth: Seniors Have No Style

Seriously?

Yes, Virginia, many younger people believe they invented cool”and “hip,” just like they think they invented sex. (No kidding.) Actually, thanks to the jazz world, these terms became part of our conversations over seventy years ago. They were not invented in the 1990’s as many young people think, nor were the attributes that made one cool and hip or a “hipster.” Now as far as style is concerned, well, to quote one researcher, “Seniors have been around the block a few times. Which means they know how to shake a leg, how to cut a rug, and more importantly, how to dress to the nines.” We may have traded our stilettos for cute wedges or flats and given up torturing shapewear (um, girdles) under our skintight spandex dresses, but  even now, using the data base in our heads that is filled with decades of fabulous fashion tips, we can still make an entrance that leaves mouths open and eyes filled with awe and admiration. That’s style!  

seniors have no style
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Myth: Older People In The Workplace

Please don’t shoot me, I am only the messenger, but this myth does raise my hackles almost to Mars! An important review done in 2009, studied stereotypes of older people in the workplace by bringing together the findings from over 100 studies of age-related stereotyping at work. What the researchers found was that stereotypes of older workers have three strong themes. First, we are perceived as less motivated and competent at work. This dovetails with the myth I refuted in April, Seniors Are Warm-Hearted, But Impaired, that older people are viewed as warm but not very competent—but in fact, there is little evidence that our work performance declines with age. Some studies even show that, relative to younger people, older people are more productive at their jobs! Imagine that. 

Second, numerous studies show that older employees are seen as harder to train or retrain, making them less valuable as employees. This assumption reflects the low-competence myth I busted. And, it highlights the assumptions of older employees’ inability to change, our likely shorter tenure with the company, and our lack of potential for development. 

Last, we seasoned workers are perceived as being more expensive employees because we have higher salaries and, due to declining health, use more health care benefits. This piece of the stereotype reflects the widespread, though exaggerated, assumption that old age and illness are one and the same.

On a positive note, although it would appear that the stereotypes of older workers are uniformly negative, there exists a substantial amount of research showing older employees, compared with their younger-age counterparts, as more trustworthy, stable, sociable, and dependable. (Score one for our team!) These beliefs reflect a warmer and more positive view of older workers. Also, while younger people think that we older workers are less worthy of advancement and less interpersonally skilled, we are seen as more reliable, compared to younger workers. (Gee, no kidding?) 

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Myth: Seniors Are Not Tech Savvy

Several studies from the respected Pew Research Center dispel this myth with their findings, yet 55% of younger people think we can’t find the location of the ON button for our computers without help. In truth, 67% of us use the internet on a regular basis, and more than 50% of us have broadband, or Wi-Fi, at home. I think the largest part of the misunderstanding comes from the use of social media. Lots of seniors see serious outcomes for young folks who can only communicate via their cellphones. Keeping face–to-face communication and actual phone calls alive, I think, is another reason why seniors reject the 24/7 use of computers, messaging, and social media.  The younger generations were born with phones in their hands, which must have been painful for their mothers giving birth ;-), and social media fluency equals intelligence in their eyes. As it turns out, the reason for the myth about our internet savvy comes from the fact that we use different social media platforms than they do. While Instagram, Twitter, Qzone, Reddit, Snapchat, and several others are favored by the young, we are the Facebook generation; 70% of mid-lifers and seniors check into Facebook every day. Clearly, we are in touch with modern technology, just on a different wave-length. 

Could you live without your computer? What are your concerns about how social media is affecting our relationships with others? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Myth: Seniors Drain The Economy

Breathe deeply now…. After receiving dozens and dozens of comments on Facebook and from my newsletter subscribers, this week I am going for a grand slam by dispelling a huge myth some younger folks have about us: we are an economic burden. Breathe deeply, again, and read on while you are resting your weary body after a long day at work. People over fifty make up only 35% of the population in the United States, but we add $7.4 Trillion dollars a year to the economy each year, or 43% of the total GDP. That’s not pocket change! Yet from the survey of 2,000 people aged sixteen to thirty-four, a full 35% thought older folks become an economic burden when we become seniors. Looking on the bright side, 65% of those responding to the survey thought we do not become an economic burden as we get older. Now that your blood pressure has dropped, what do you think about this fact? How does it make you feel? I look forward to hearing from you!

seniors drain the economy
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Myth: Seniors Are Warm-Hearted But Impaired

In the early 2000’s, two researchers at Princeton University queried college students about their opinions of and their ideas about seniors. Sadly, the students consistently grouped the seniors in the same category with disabled and developmentally disabled people, reflecting the widely held prejudice that older adults are low on competence. The students did throw us cognitive-impaired mid-lifers a small bone by rating us high on warmth. Yippee ;-( However, if the students did rate us as being competent, our warmth and likeability factors went through the floor. It seems we can’t be warm and competent at the same time—kind of like being blonde and smart in the same body. On the positive side, there was some wiggle room in how warm and friendly we could be, but the belief that older adults are incompetent was as solid as Mt. Rushmore. Should you think things have changed in the ensuing decade, I am sorry to say, you would be mistaken. In an update to their study published in 2016, Cuddy and Fiske, the researchers, stood by their original findings, and other studies continue to corroborate the first findings of Cuddy and Fiske. Amazing.

How does this information make you feel?

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Myth: In Some Ways, Nothing Has Changed

I came across this poem recently and it stopped me cold. I looked at the date and nodded my head, yet realized almost forty years later, many people would still find this poem to be accurate. What do you think?

The Little and the Old Man (1981)

Said the little boy, “Sometimes I drop my spoon.”

Said the old man, “I do that too.”

The little boy whispered, “I wet my pants.”

“I do that too,” laughed the little old man.

Said the little boy, “I often cry.”

The old man nodded, “So do I.”

“But worst of all,” said the boy, “it seems

Grown-ups don’t pay attention to me.”

And he felt the warmth of a wrinkled old hand.

“I know what you mean,” said the little old man.

Shel Silverstein (1930-1999)

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Myth: People Are “Old” At 56

A survey of 2,000 young people sixteen to thirty-four were asked, “What age is ‘old’ to you?” I almost fell out of my desk chair laughing, when I read their answers: the male respondents believe a person becomes “old” at fifty-six. The female respondents gave us a few more years of life by selecting sixty-one as the age at which someone is considered “old.” For anyone reading this who is older than, say, fifty, or fifty-six for sure, I hope you will thank me forever for enlightening you as to what age the younger generation thinks a person is over the hill. I don’t even need to spend time refuting this one. Please share this with some of your other “old” friends for a good laugh, and a knowing roll of the eyes!

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Myth: Our Driving Skills Decline As We Get Older

Older drivers are crazy drivers. That’s what younger people, and some older people 😉 seem to believe. However, according to official sources, namely the Federal Highway Safety Administration, drivers sixty-five and over make up only 19% of the crash victims, while those young folks 18-35 make up almost 40%, 38% to be exact, of crash victims. Add to that a study from Consumer Reports which found seniors had fewer crashes per miles driven than younger drivers. The final bombshell that destroys this myth? Research from the University of Swansea suggests that drivers seventeen to twenty-one are four times more likely to crash their cars than are senior drivers. But, anyone who has, or had, teenagers knows that is true. Why do you think kids’ insurance rates are so high and then drop dramatically at twenty-five?

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Myth: We Lose Our Creativity As We Get Older

I have never seen an expiration date stamped on the forehead of an artist, or a musician, or an interior designer. Creativity, like wisdom, is often a gift that becomes more complex and more nuanced as we get older. Michelangelo was seventy-one when he took on the job of completing St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Tony Bennett will be ninety-three on his next birthday, and when he was eighty-eight he did a killer duet of “The Lady is a Tramp” with Lady Gaga. It’s had more than 29 million views on YouTube. The sheet-metal sculptor, Beverly Pepper, is still producing monumental works at ninety-six. 

I could keep listing active artists in all fields for the next week, but I think the point is made that as humans we are hardwired for creativity, and it is something we carry with us until our last breath.  

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Myth: Breaking These Stereotypes

Since humans first put stick to cave wall, in almost every type of image–moving or in print–where older adults are portrayed, the creator gives us one or more of the perceived shortcomings listed above. (This doesn’t include the ads for Viagra and the like, where the fit, handsome, and vitally alive, silver-haired fox looks longingly at the beautiful and equally toned and vital woman of a certain age.) The term for this systematic stereotyping is called “ageism.” 

This term came into existence in 1969. Before that no word existed to describe the pervasive prejudice against people with seasoning, experience, and wisdom. Now here is the most surprising piece: younger and older adults hold similar stereotypes about aging–how can that be when we are now looking out the eyes of an older adult? I certainly don’t think of myself as mentally deficient, or slow and creaky. Unfortunately, that stereotyping is true because there are almost always (unless you are a centenarian) people who are older than we are on whom we can attach the list of stereotypes. Ageism is one of the last socially acceptable prejudices. Society, in general, still tends to categorize older adults into one of three subtypes: grandmother types–helpful, kindly, serene, wise, trustworthy; elder statesman–intelligent, competent, aggressive, intolerant; generic senior citizen—lonely, old-fashioned, weak, genderless (and for sure, asexual!) Adding to the unrealistic view of older adults, these automatically activated stereotypes subconsciously guide our behavior toward older people and how we communicate with them. Patronizing talk, including slower speech, simpler vocabulary, careful enunciation, a demeaning emotional tone, and the adoption of superficial conversation are telltale signs our implicit negative stereotyping is kicking in. Even sadder, women have suffered from greater ageism than men. 

Now for some good news? There is a sea-change coming. More and more films and television programs are accurately depicting older adults as vibrant, energetic, smart, funny, and completely with-it.  

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Myth: Older Adults Are Lonely And Depressed

When we look at the research around this belief, we find that in truth, older adults are happier, less depressed, and feel less lonely than their children or grandchildren. Large studies done over the last dozen years, in both the United States and the UK, show that less than one-third of seniors describe themselves as unhappy and/or lonely, compared with 40% of young people and 35% of adults in their forties and fifties. The highest spike in reported loneliness actually occurs among the young—people 16-30, who are reporting near epidemic levels of feeling isolated and lonely despite having a phone in their hands 24/7.  Anyone over sixty grew up in an era before high tech– if you don’t count the rabbit ears on top of the TV as advanced technology– in a time when socializing and talking in person were the chief entertainments and the glue in every family and community. We have carried with us, and still use, those social skills learned when young from Mom and Dad and at school, to keep us feeling connected and supported as we grow older.

While there exists a growing number of seniors who feel lonely and depressed because of physical or other limitations, even with the growing number of Baby Boomers reaching senior status, the percentage is still low in comparison to the younger generations.

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Myth: Older People Can’t Learn New Things

I have so much fun debunking myths about seniors. I see it as a personal challenge to take on these untruths and set the world straight about how amazing seniors actually are. We are blessed with organs that have the power to regenerate themselves, grow new parts and survive and thrive against high odds. Our brain falls high on that list. About twenty years ago, scientists discovered, and we now know as fact, that our brain is neoplastic—able to adapt and change at any age. The science tells us it actually continues to change throughout our lives. So what does that mean in regard to learning new things? It means we are certainly able to, and should keep learning new things all our lives, because the more we challenge our brain as we age, the more efficiently it works. With continual use, our memory and cognitive functions become better, faster, and sharper.

Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist showed us that by challenging our brain by learning new things we actually grow new brain cells. As I discuss in my posts, and in my Wednesday’s Wisdom videos this month, when we put our brains to work, we lay new track, and with time and use of these new neurological pathways, we turn that track from temporary “as strong as a noodle” to permanent “as strong as steel”…and develop a “mind as sharp as a steel trap.”;-)

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Myth: Doing Crossword Puzzles Will Keep Your Brain Fit

I almost decided this myth was too beloved a belief to challenge, but I have never been one to back away from pointing out that the emperor is, in fact, naked. Unfortunately, researchers find that doing crossword puzzles will not keep your brain fit. During a September 2018 visit with Dr. Sandi Chapman, Chief Director of the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas, and author of Make Your Brain Smarter, she told me, “Doing crossword puzzles makes you good at crossword puzzles.” In her book, she further elaborates, “The important idea to recognize is that you will get better and better at whatever you practice, regardless of age. The limitation to most tasks and activities is that practicing specific tasks makes the person primarily better at the skill practiced, but the brain gains rarely generalize to other skills.” Dr. Fred Wolinsky, at the University of Iowa and creator of the Iowa Healthy and Active Minds Study (IHAMS) found the same to be true.

So, if not crossword puzzles, then what should we do to keep our brains more engaged? That is a multifaceted question I will spend the next few posts discussing, but Dr. Wolinsky and Norman Doidge, MD, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, and author of The Brain’s Way of Healing, find that doing specific brain training exercises, other than working crossword puzzles, is better at improving several different types of cognitive function. Dr. Chapman adds, “Rather than playing so-called brain games like Sudoku [or doing crosswords], more effective ways to improve memory are to exercise, sleep, and engage in deeper-level thinking.”

Several high-quality, brain-training programs are available for downloading on to your laptop, iPad, or iPhone. Spend some time looking at them and find the one that speaks to you. Develop a consistent practice schedule, and be on your way to thinking and remembering better!

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Myth: Most Older Adults Live In Nursing Homes And Cannot Get Around By Themselves

This myth makes me so angry I could rip the fender off a tractor-trailer with my pinky– the one on my bad hand. The real truth is that only about 5% of older adults live in nursing homes, and most are totally mobile, according to the statistics from the government’s Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion,5%! With the number of ads showing a family putting the feeble mother-in-law in a home, or a grandparent who needs a nurse around the clock, it is no wonder folks in the US, and especially the younger ones, think all seniors live in Final Acres Retirement Village.

Most seniors today live in their own homes, and many still work, at least part time. Others have downsized into smaller dwellings to enjoy the freedom from routine yard work and household maintenance. Many of these folks are just too busy traveling, enjoying grandchildren, and exploring new hobbies to think about spending any time in a nursing home.

Last season, even Grace & Frankie’s lovely children sent them to a nursing home, and that lasted about five minutes. Seriously, who could believe Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin should be in a home? That scenario is as ridiculous as it is just plain wrong!

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Myth: Aging Makes You Unproductive

The findings from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics breaks this myth wide open. It seems that as the kiddos leave the nest, so do the parents. According to the latest data, a whopping 29% of the population, the highest number of folks who volunteer, begin giving back around age forty-five. This number dips a little to 24% for seniors sixty-five and over. People in the last half of their lives supply an immeasurable number of hours in both helping with child-rearing and volunteering at worthy organizations. Women make up the majority of volunteers, especially in caring for the grand wee ones and elderly parents or relatives, but the men aren’t far behind them in the overall number of volunteering hours.

The contribution of those at mid-life and beyond makes an enormous impact on our society. Heaven save us from where we would be without the blessing of time the older ones have to give. The statistics also show that seniors are the happiest age group of all. Maybe it’s the giving back. Could there be a correlation? I’ll keep that topic for another day.

Until next time…Be Vibrant!

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Myth: All Seniors Have Dementia

Did you know all seniors suffer from dementia? Many younger people truly believe all seniors suffer from dementia. Dementia being the umbrella term for degenerative brain diseases, of which Alzheimer’s is the most recognizable expression.

The truth here is that in the last twenty years, the number of folks demonstrating non-Alzheimer dementia symptoms has dropped to just under 9% of the senior population in both the USA and the UK. The highly respected magazine, The Lancet, as well as several studies from the United States, find more seniors have healthy brain function. The numbers have actually dropped from 11.6% in 2000 to 8.8 percent in 2012

It’s good to know we seniors still have our wits!

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