“OLD AGE IS SUFFERING,” according to the First Noble Truth of Buddhism. In this sense, old age is a stage of life that is pitied and feared, one associated with cognitive, physical, and social losses that distinguish it from a “better-lived” youth. This view of aging holds true in many societies where negative attributes of aging often outweigh the positives. The impact of this stigma is twofold: it may lead to worse treatment of older individuals by younger members of society and can also profoundly affect an individual’s self-perception of growing “old”.
Before ever getting their first wrinkle or seeing a decline in their physical function, an individual already has some assumptions about how they will fit into society in this later stage of life. The influences of friends, family, workplace, and culture may help shape these notions of aging. Negative aging stereotypes can start forming as early as childhood, from interactions with seniors or depictions of them in the media. These unfavorable attitudes towards the elderly may become easily accepted as means to distance oneself from a group that acts as a reminder of the last stage of life. These views can offer other short-term benefits such as justifying younger workers over older employees who can be perceived as less productive, less technologically apt, and not as motivated. Without any intentional action to dispel aging stereotypes, these notions can become internalized and in turn, negatively affect an individual’s aging experience and their wellbeing, thereby essentially confirming long-standing fears of aging.
Adults experiencing negative self-perceptions about aging tend to have lower life satisfaction and rate themselves lower in health and mood compared with their more positive counterparts, even when controlling for poor health and illness. Longitudinal studies of older adults also confirm that negative age-related self-perceptions correlate with higher disability, worse physical function and greater risk of mortality over time. One reason this view could translate in measurable health declines may be that negative expectations of aging sway the individual to believe that they have no control over the aging process. Consequently, these people are less motivated to remain socially active or to engage in activities shown to bolster mental and physical longevity. A positive approach to aging on the other hand, seems to help develop early awareness of health risks, rather than denial of them; an aging individual is therefore more likely to engage in preventative behaviours that help extend life and physiological functioning. By viewing aging as a process to be involved in, rather than helplessly subjected to, research in this field seems to suggest that the experience of aging is very much intertwined with one’s subjective view of their own aging.
Clearly, the power of perception is a factor in how society views and treats its elderly, and how the elderly view themselves. Fortunately, these deeply rooted perceptions are inherently malleable. For instance, schoolbased intergenerational programmes have been shown to decrease negative societal attitudes and stereotypes towards elderly, as children learn empathy and challenge their beliefs about aging. Perceptions of self-aging in older adults can also be targeted, as one study used an implicit positive stereotype intervention over 8 weeks which resulted in an increase of measurable physical function. Equally, adding a “views-on-ageing” component that emphasized positive aspects of aging to a physical intervention program for adults over the age of 65 resulted in an increase of physical activity over a 10 month period. Behavioral changes follow changes in attitude, so promoting more positive attitudes on aging in both the general population and within the older demographic could ultimately benefit society at large. The objective experience of growing older does not exist without the subjective perception of aging. What we consider as true wellness in old age must therefore be achieved with medical intervention and social supports, and also most certainly, with the idea that you’re only as old as you feel.
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