AFS Blog

Treat Older People as Individuals, Unhampered by Stereotypes

Posted on October 29, 2018 | by Kathy Silverberg
Treat Older People as Individuals, Unhampered by Stereotypes

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the Herald-Tribune by Kathy Silverberg, a former publisher of the Herald-Tribune’s southern editions.

A calendar is not required to tell that this is fall in Florida. There is a decidedly cool start to the mornings these days, but that’s not the chief indicator. The more crowded roadways, the increase in out-of-state license plates, the full schedule of events at entertainment venues reveal that winter residents have begun their annual trek south.

For the most part, these annual visitors are retired and thus older people. The conversation at this time of year often turns to remarks about “snowbirds” as poor drivers going too slowly in the left lane and coming to a near-complete stop before turning off the highway. It’s not uncommon to hear complaints about older people who stroll casually through the grocery store aisles while the time-starved permanent residents are just trying to get home to prepare dinner for their families. And then there is the difficulty we full-timers face getting into our favorite restaurants.

These are pretty inconsequential complaints often repeated in a good-natured way. Those of us who are here year round know the important contribution that part-time residents make to our economy, not to mention to our quality of life.

These minor inconveniences are tolerable. What is not so tolerable are the negative stereotypes too often identified with older people that can lead to a harmful mindset, especially as more of the population falls into this category. These stereotypes that suggest older people are slower, forgetful, physically decrepit, have difficulty with hearing and vision, and are less able to adapt to technological advancements — which are often wrong — have led to a kind of discrimination that hurts all of us, old and young.

In many cases, these stereotypes are self-fulfilling. Older people too often consider themselves of less value to society because they think they cannot keep up with younger people. Thus, they begin to deteriorate both physically and mentally. If you think you should have arthritic joints, minor aches and pains can become a bigger deal. If you think you should retire from a career you love because you just aren’t as sharp as you used to be, then it’s likely you won’t be.

The specter of dementia, particularly of Alzheimer’s disease, has caused many — both young and old — to consider every action by themselves or their older relatives in light of whether it is a sign of the deterioration beginning. Certainly, Alzheimer’s deserves the attention it is getting because of the personal and financial toll it is taking on our nation, but it is important to note that, in the absence of a disease, cognitive decline is not a consequence of aging.

In fact, Psychology Today has reported that well over half of those older than 85 show normal brain function. Further, it notes that medical advances have vastly improved the health outcomes of older people. In 1990, the average 75-year-old person was considered to be the biological equivalent of a 65-year-old in 1960.

The truth is that the aging process is as individual as any other stage in life and that the challenges people face all along the way can be vastly different from one to another. Making generalities about aging can be as damaging as assigning certain characteristics to groups of people because of their ethnic background, their religion or their sexual orientation. These barriers to understanding limit opportunities for too many people and result in divisiveness that is harmful to society as a whole.

Some might say that questioning the use of stereotypes to define older people is a misguided attempt to be politically correct. Why not refer to advancing age as the golden years? There is danger in grouping people into categories according to a set of expectations and assumptions that will be wrong more than they are right.

Maybe it is best to look at people as individuals, imperfect humans seeking their place in this complicated world. What about looking for the particular talents and gifts that each person possesses and celebrating those special qualities?

There is so much work to be done in this world today. Why should the ideas and the skills of a large segment of the population be excluded from efforts to find solutions, to make life better for everyone?

Why shouldn’t experience be as valued as intelligence, or wisdom as fearlessness?

There was a time when the talents of women were seen to be inferior to men. Thankfully, that day has passed, for the most part. It is time that those of a certain age are considered as equal players in this game of life from which we all hope to benefit.



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