It may be hard to believe but aging is trending on social media. And why not? As the North American population ages and as statistics continue to show people are living longer—what it means to be old, an elder, or a senior citizen is the topic of conversation for more people than ever.
In January 2016, Mark Mather wrote the “Fact Sheet: Aging in the United States”, published by The Population Reference Bureau. Based on the Bureau’s survey findings, Mather provided a forecast of U.S. demographics explaining that ‘baby boomers’ (people born between 1946–1964) “will reshape America's older population. In 2016, baby boomers will be between ages 52 and 70”.
According to Mather, the Bureau envisions by 2060, the 65+ age group will make up 25 percent of the American population. His report also shines a positive light on the fact that older adults are “becoming more racially and ethnically diverse”; they are working longer; and more seniors are aging in place—i.e., staying in their own homes rather than moving to care home facilities.
Like the U.S., the balance in Canada’s demographics is also shifting. In a May 2017 article for CBC News, writer Eric Grenier explained Statistics Canada’s census results for 2016 provided a shocking result: for the first time in its history, the country’s “share of seniors (16.9 percent) outweighs its share of children (16.6 percent)”. And Canada predicts seniors will make up nearly one-quarter of the population 30 years before the U.S., with forecasts as early as 2031.
Positive statistics aside, aging is part of the unifying human experience or, as Kurt Smith, Psy.D., wrote in his article, ‘The Mind Games We Play with Aging’, for PsychCentral.com: “Aging is the great equalizer . . .”. Regardless of attempts to dodge the negative stereotypes society holds around our external markers of aging by camouflaging with hair dye, hydrating cremes, makeup, and Botox, there are internal signs that must be faced.
An April 2016 World Health Organization (WHO) statement on Mental Health and Older Adults said, “Older people face special physical and mental health challenges which need to be recognized.”
In his PsychCentral article, Kurt Smith delved further into the emotional toll older adults can experience. “We all age and no one can escape the changes that naturally occur,” he wrote. “Recognizing that your long-held picture of yourself is changing can be difficult to cope with.”
Indeed, in addition to living longer and making up a greater portion of the world’s population, older adults still face more illnesses than their younger counterparts and more challenges to maintaining their mental health. In recent years, with growing recognition of the importance of mental health to one’s overall wellness, more efforts are underway to understand the psychological challenges of aging.
The WHO recognizes “mental health and emotional well-being are as important in older age as at any other time of life”, and indicated that worldwide, roughly 15 percent of adults over 60 “suffer from a mental disorder”.
In a CNN.com article published this week, Judith Graham of Kaiser Health News wrote about the challenges of facing society’s stereotypes and the realities of aging—based on findings from the Reframing Aging Initiative, one of several projects undertaken by Grantmakers In Aging (GIA), an organization dedicated to improving the aging experience.
Kaiser wrote that according to reports by GIA, “Although people may hope for good health and happiness, in practice they tend to believe that growing older involves deterioration and decline.” As a result, negative expectations of aging can become self-fulfilling prophesies resulting in a focus only on the detrimental effects—aches and pains, hearing loss, etc.
“If a person has internalized negative stereotypes, his confidence may be eroded, stress responses activated, motivation diminished ("I'm old, and it's too late to change things") and a sense of efficacy ("I can do that") impaired,” Kaiser added.
Older adults must challenge their own long-held biases toward aging. Questioning a lifetime of one’s own prejudices while concurrently accepting the natural process of aging is no easy task, but it may help alleviate some of the signs and symptoms society has us believe are inescapable.
Kaiser points to the fact that “older adults who hold negative stereotypes tend to walk slowly, experience memory problems and recover less fully from a fall or fracture, among other ramifications.” She also noted that according to the GIA report, seniors who possess predominantly positive perspectives on aging tend to live 7.5 year longer than those with less optimistic views.
In her article for CNN, Judith Graham highlights the work of Patricia Devine, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Although Devine’s work focuses on ways to reduce racial prejudice, she believes similar strategies can be applied to the stigma around aging.
Like subliminal ads for cola drinks embedded in movie reels in the 1950s, Devine “and several colleagues demonstrated that exposing older adults to subliminal positive messages about aging [over time] improved their mobility and balance -- crucial measures of physical function,” wrote Graham.
Subliminal suggestions may not be available to everyone, so Devine prescribes other changes to garner a more positive outlook. She suggests trying to replace stereotypes by not assuming every old person is frail and needs assistance. She emphasizes the importance of looking for positive images of older adults who are healthy, active members of society—even senior actors on television or in movies. Furthermore, Devine suggests switching perspectives, internalizing the role of an older person—accepting it as a healthy part of the human life cycle.
Grenier, E., (May 3, 2017). CBC News. Canadian seniors now outnumber children for 1st time, 2016 census shows. http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/2016-census-age-gender-1.4095360
Mather, M., (January 2016). Fact Sheet: Aging in the United States http://www.prb.org/Publications/Media-Guides/2016/aging-unitedstates-fact-sheet.aspx
Smith, K., Psy.D., LMFT, LPCC, AFCC. (Retrieved November 15, 2017). PsychCentral. The Mind Games We Play with Aging. https://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2017/11/03/the-mind-games-we-play-with-aging/
World Health Organization. (April 2016). Mental Health and Older Adults.http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs381/en/