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Myths and Truths about Aging

We have a lot of ideas about aging and the elderly, especially if we don't consider ourselves to be—yet—in the category of aged persons. 

Many younger people think of the aging process and getting older is depressing, however there are many studies that find seniors are among the happiest age group. In research, self-reported levels of happiness are at their lowest at age 40, but then grow thereafter. In addition, many of us who think of aging in a negative light also believe seniors are grumpy old people! However, research suggest that people who are unhappy in their younger years will likely continue to be in their later years, and similarly, good-natured people continue on a happy trajectory as they age. In other words, one’s attitude comes down to their individual personality, not an age group.

Social isolation can be a problem for seniors, especially for those who have limited mobility, lack of transportation or who have recently lost a spouse, but most seniors are able to make adjustments and stay socially engaged, especially if they hae a supprotive social network. Activities and visits with family and friends, and at places such as a local senior center or a place of worship, also help seniors stay socially active and happy.

Aging can create cognitive changes however research shows that older people tend to perform better in certain areas of intelligence and poorer in others. For example, while seniors may have slower reaction times, “mental capabilities that depend most heavily on accumulated experience and knowledge, like settling disputes and enlarging one’s vocabulary, clearly get better over time,” writes Patricia Cohen in the New York Times. What’s more, dementia is anything but inevitable. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, only 5% of those over age 65 will develop dementia.

What we think about retirement (when we're still in the workforce) is also a distortion. Though retired people may have left the workforce, they are hardly unproductive. They contribute countless hours to activities like helping with child-rearing and volunteering, which makes an enormous impact on society. In fact, a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates 24% of senior citizens report engaging in volunteer work after retirement—this is a much higher percentage of volunteerism than any other age group. 

Further, there are countless examples that dispel the myth that aging makes you less creative. In fact, many artists, singers and songwriters, and performers actually find their calling or achieve mastery in their later years.

Older people are not only often easily able to adapt to new situations, they are actually experts at adapting. By the time one has become a senior, they have had to adapt to innumerable changes and transitions in life, many of which would have certainly been challenging. Seniors may be slower to change their opinions, but one of humankind's greatest traits, adaptability, is generally retained as we age.

As our society "grays," there is much to learn about the aging process. We have begun to do earnest research into many aging concerns, but there are still some boundaries to cross. Discussing senior love and sex is largely taboo in our culture and has led to the stereotype that the elderly are sexless. This stereotype is harmful because it can cause seniors to have conflicted feelings or unnecessary guilt about their sexuality, while simultaneously causing younger people to hold misconceptions about aging and the elderly. According to information from a state of Oregon webpage on aging, “[r]esearch has found that sexual activity and enjoyment do not decrease with age. People with physical health, a sense of well-being and a willing partner are likely to continue sexual relations. People who are bored with their partner, mentally or physically tired, afraid of failure or overindulge in food or drink are unlikely to engage in sexual activity. These reasons do not differ a great deal when considering whether or not a person will engage in sex at any age.” 


Myth or Truth?

Take this quick quiz on aging myths and realities (no points are associated with it; correct answers are at the end of the lesson). 

Nursing home

1. Myth or Truth? MOST OLDER AMERICANS LIVE IN NURSING HOMES

Engaged and productive

2. Myth or Truth? OLDER ADULTS STAY ENGAGED AND PRODUCTIVE

Intimacy

3. Myth or Truth? OLDER ADULTS HAVE LITTLE INTEREST IN SEX

Engaged and productive

4. Myth or Truth? INDIVIDUALS CAN LEARN NEW SKILLS EVEN IN LATE LIFE

Nursing home

5. Myth or Truth? THERE IS NOTHING THAT CAN BE DONE TO REDUCE ONE'S RISK OF ALZHEIMER’S’ DISEASE

Now, read this short article on common myths about aging from Psychology Today Magazine. 

Takeaway:


Physical Potential and Aging

Before you proceed, please read the following handouts:

Infographic about Ageing and Health Issues

For more information on how elders are faring around the world, you may choose to review the information in the WHO World Report on Aging and Health, 2015 (this is optional material; you will not be tested on this report).

Takeaway:


 Aging and Intimacy

First, watch this interesting video about research on sexuality and aging:

What does the Research Say?

In a current survey of people aged 50 or older (data are still being collected) more than 8,000 people over 50 have revealed information on intimacy and sexuality. Researchers Chrisanna Northrup and Drs. Pepper Schwartz and James Witte shared some results, excerpted below:

  1. Do you kiss or hug your partner in public?
  2. Have you given up an important part of yourself to keep your relationship together?
  3. Have you ever read your partner's email?
  4. How often do you hold hands with your partner?
  5. How frequently do you tell your partner you love him or her?
  6. Do you ever get the sense that your partner has sex with you out of a sense of obligation?
  7. Have you ever used sex toys with your partner?
  8. How often do you kiss passionately?
  9. What do you most want from your partner that you are not getting?
  10. How often do you do "date night"?
  11. Do you tell your partner how attractive they are?
  12. Do you perform oral sex on your partner?
  13. How often do you and your partner make love?
  14. If you had it all to do over, would you choose the same partner again?

More than 70,000 people have completed The Normal Bar's online survey. The results above are drawn from the randomly selected responses of 8,240 participants who indicated being age 50 or older.

For the last part of this lesson, read the following two short information sheets on sexuality and aging:

Takeaway: 


Conclusion

No matter our age, staying active (physically and mentally) is important. One aspect of aging and activity that is often overlooked is sexual activity. However, this is an area which is now being researched more thoughtfully, and the results show that as we age, our ideas about sex do not differ significantly from when we were younger. Staying sexually active (if it is your preference) is also an important component of healthy aging. 


Correct Responses to Myth or Truth Quiz:

1. Myth. Only about 5 percent of older Americans live in nursing homes at any given time. However, the percentage increases with age, ranging from 1.1 percent for persons 65-74 years to 3.5 percent for persons 75-84 years and 13.2 percent for persons 85+.
2. Truth. Many older adults continue to work, volunteer and act as caregivers. Regular positive interactions with family and friends and being involved in different social networks can help older adults be healthier. Conversely, loneliness has a negative physical and emotional impact.
3. Myth. Although frequency of sexual activity may decline in older adulthood, many older adults continue to enjoy a physically and emotionally fulfilling sex life. Benefits of sexual activity include better sleep, less stress, more positive mood and increased marital satisfaction.
4. Truth. Older adults can learn skills in late life, although learning some skills may take longer than in younger adults. The adage “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is the myth.
5. Myth. Physical and mental inactivity, smoking, obesity, diabetes, hypertension and depression are all associated with an increased risk for the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Each of these factors can be modified. Keeping mentally and physically active can help preserve cognitive skills, reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease and maintain overall health.