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L.J. Rohan

L.J. Rohan

Gerontologist

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.

Myth: All Older (OLD) People Are the Same

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!

Myth: Learning A Language Is For The Young

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

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

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!

Myth: As People Grow Older, They Become Less Happy

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.

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

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!

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

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!

Myth: Dementia Is An Inevitable Result Of Old Age

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!

Myth: Older Tech Workers Are Less Valued Part II

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!

Myth: Older Tech Workers Are Less Valued

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