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Positive self-perceptions of aging

January 1, 2010
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Beliefs about aging

What one believes about being older, can determine many things: the choices that you make at your time of life, the extent to which you place yourself in demanding life (or work) situations, your expectations regarding your ability to cope. Some older adults may be reluctant to socialize in situations where they have to meet new people if they doubt their ability to remember names, faces etc.

Take normal everyday memory failures like having difficulty remembering where you parked the car, or left your keys, does that shake your belief in your abilities? Do you let these changes determine the choices you make?

I have dealt with the problem of the parked car in large parking areas by having a yellow car, but there are many ways you can identify your car.  To avoid the anxiety of  recalling the position of my car I still have to take deliberate note of the Level or the nearest sign and then find “yellow”.  That information has been placed in long term memory and it’s worked so far….  Also, in the house I have one place for keys, but that gets messed up when someone borrows the car….can’t win every time!

Negative ageism

We cannot control the onset of aging and some inevitable decline, but it is important to realise that throughout our society negative ageism can infiltrate into our own thinking and from there, influence the things we choose to be and do and how we feel. Some people, sadly, are confirmed in their negative belief about aging “I must be getting old….” by their family and social network. The concept “old”  can embody all the ideas and practices that have been internalised about aging during a lifetime. Depending on what you and others in your social circle believe about aging, a negative view can be reinforced by not expecting much of an older person. The age stereotype can infiltrate a health problem, for instance, where it might be attributed to an inevitable decline associated with old age, rather than to a belief triggered by the expectations of aging.   If Michael Merzenich is right, that “old people want an easy life (but they don’t realise how bad it is for them) “, then there is a degree of self interest in accepting an aging stereotype.

Society groups us as a member of “the old”. In some aging studies I noticed that some groups are classified as  “0ld-old”…. I would probably be in that group! I think when the baby-boomer generation finds they are slotted into these negative group identities expectations may have to change.

Positive self perception and survival

The relationship between positive self-perceptions of aging and longevity has been studied. Even if we are not aware of them, negative thoughts about aging that we pick up from society may be cutting years off our lives.  A study conducted at Yale University’s Department of Epidemiology and Public Health found that older people with more positive self-perceptions of aging, measured up to 23 years earlier, lived 7.5 years longer than those with less positive self-perceptions of aging.

I would suggest that “positive self-perception ” might entail

  • Finding ways to be both independent and social,
  • Always searching for means of adapting positively to changes in context such as body, health, social aspects and life-style.
  • Rejecting negative stereotypes of aging like “As you get older, you are less useful”.
  • Moving with a spring in your step which comes from exercise and a sense of well-being
  • Feeling good or feeling competent which comes from pursuing happiness and personal and social interests
  • Feeling useful which comes from engagement in family or society

I think these kind of choices can have  lasting benefit. They are what we call “top-down” approaches to life. Making things happen through planning,  problem-solving, thinking, self-and-other reflection, emotional awareness, learning and much more.

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