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When it comes to aging, people subjectively think about the physical and mental adversities awaiting them and their loved ones in the future. All too often, this means doing less, whether one is giving up freedoms of vitality or functionality, mental or physical abilities or even autonomy of life one has had their entire lifetime. Stereotypical negative attitudes about old age are attempting to minimize seniors’ abilities to continue playing valuable roles in society. Multiple theories have tried to explain the biology of aging via scientific observations at multiple system levels, which include, but not limited to, developmental-genetics and stochastic theories. Both theories have an influence on well-being and future outlooks of elders. Other perspectives on aging successfully are blurred by distortions of the way things ought to be. Prejudice against age, theories about what the aging process is like and how it is affecting people, as well as figuring out the best way to age successfully in today’s world – all of these gerontological concerns are making later-life transitions for the elderly increasingly challenging and have an effect on mental and physical health.
Ageism, the term coined in 1969 by Robert Butler, is prejudice directed against someone because of his or her age based on a number of negative stereotypes. Endorsed by the youth, as well as middle age adults, older people are pegged to be diseased, feeble, grumpy, forgetful, and set in their “old timer” manners. Although Butler came up with this word to describe this particular kind of discrimination nearly 50 years ago, ageism is not really something new. Years and years ago, in the ancient times, when communities killed their elderly in elaborate ceremonies because they were believed they had outlived their usefulness. Shakespeare even had his own stereotypical beliefs about the elderly in one of his most famous quotes from As You Like It: “Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history, Is second childishness and mere oblivion, Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”. Old age seems haunted by “old fools” in literature; therefore, it is of no wonder the youth of today are quick to judge old age with such negativity. Anywhere from the workplace, in medical settings, and even out in public, elderly people come face to face with ageism every day.
Older working-class people and those approaching retirement are especially considered an at-risk life stage for these prevalent age-based stereotypes. The evidence that older employees are perceived differently in the workplace is real and overlooked. For example, a meta-analysis of this type of research analyzed that people hold stereotypes that older employees are perceived unwilling to engage in training opportunities and lack the motivation to improve; they were also perceived as less healthy and more likely to experience work (and family) imbalance. However, some remarkable findings in the United States show that older workers tend to be more compliant, more reliable than younger employees, and less likely to take sick days; and, based off a Swedish study in 2013, age made people “more flexible at work”. This does not stop businesses from offering incentives for elders to retire early though. Even though the Age Discrimination in Employment Act protects older people from businesses and employers who illegally target older persons’ ages when it comes to hiring, they still encounter more problems with employment than their younger counterparts do. Others facing financial difficulties that are actively searching for employment are consistently being let down, left with a feeling of incompetence and worthlessness simply because they fall into the “old” category.
These stereotypes about older people are nevertheless persistent but they are very inaccurate. Negative assumptions about aging ultimately have a bad impact on the mental and physical health of older adults. Nelson (2016) states that American culture has led older people to believe these stereotypes to actually be true and, depending on the degree to which they believe, impacts their psychological will to live. Multidimensional studies have exposed – based on negative aging stereotypes – that participants rated their futures as lacking opportunity, with limitations that decreased their overall vision of the future. With this information, it is obvious to see that ageism is a type of bullying toward older people, and with it – just as when children bully each other – mental health issues are sure to arise. Health professionals are trying their best to educate and train others about the myths of aging. The more positive view of aging that is promoted in society, the better the functional health must become for the elder. This optimism can significantly improve healthy behaviors and change the bias negative opinions regarding theories of aging.
In a deeper context, multiple theories have attempted to explain the biology of aging through a variety of scientific observations. In general, these theories are divided into either intrinsic or extrinsic theories. Stochastic (extrinsic) theories propose that the reason for aging is a result of damages to vital cell molecules such as mitochondrial DNA damages and oxygen radical accumulation; these damages eventually build up to levels that result in physiologic decline that is linked to aging. These inevitable small clinical manifestations of the aging process are those that accumulate with time. The impairments of physical health and the decline in cognitive functioning can make for a difficult time in later life. These abilities are of high importance to aging adults because they both have crucial impacts on elements of well-being, including current and futuristic quality of life. By the early seventies, the brain begins to shrink in size which contributes to the fact that older people are prone to cerebral bleeding after injuries sustained to the head. Changes in memory effectively start dwindling during the middle of peoples’ lives and even more so in their sixties and seventies. Other neuromuscular functions such as motor strength, reflexes, and synaptic connections also begin to decline during this time. It is of importance to sharpen elders’ sense of independence, to remind them that aging is a time of continued growth, socializing, and purpose so these extrinsic theories may not destroy hope.
Extrinsic changes are related to the classical view that aging happens as a result of random wear and tear; however, the newest research holds that aging is more orderly and genetically programmed. The developmental-genetics (intrinsic) theories focus on the genetic influences that determine physical condition, an occurrence of disease, age, and cause of death, as well as other factors contributing to longevity. When considering the aspects of longevity in life, it is interesting to find that most people who live over 90 years of age appear to have a stronger genetic influence – which can be seen throughout the ancestral history of particular families. But it is also worth considering notes by James Vaupel, which states that inheritance might have little to do with longevity than researches thought, especially when reflecting on lifespan data differences from past years. Other insights from the developmental-genetics theory include causes of death and inheritance of diseases. Some families have a history of dying from cardiovascular disease, while others pass down copies of genes which are labeled as high risk of developing neurocognitive disorders. Belsky (2013) reports that “roughly 15% of the U.S. population possesses two copies of the APOE-4 marker,” which raises the chances of getting Alzheimer’s disease. Imagine an older person finding out that they had a chance at becoming ill – how will that change their perspective on the rest of their life? There are ways proven to slow side-effects of particular illnesses, and mental health doctors urge these strategies to overcome devastating feelings that may speed up the process. Caregivers even experience life-changing moments when battling family member’s devastating disorders; but, they too can feel a sense of worth when providing words of hope and encouragement. Overall, the general decline in physical health and cognitive function of the aging process has been proved by research that it is indeed multifaceted – infused with stochastic and developmental-genetic influences.
Gerontologists have been searching for the essential ingredients to foster a better life for people made dependent by physical health and cognitive deterioration. Specifically, the cognitive decline in older adults is a huge public health concern which involves personal life, family life, and life out in society, impacts, and – in combination with depleting physical health – can cause a domino effect of obstacles for the remainder of old age. These obstacles nonetheless can influence a person’s view of the aging process. Such views on aging self-perceptions, subjective state of being, and what other people think about older people, in general, are considered psychosocial variables in the aging process, all of which influence well-being, aging successfully and quality of life. When it comes to well-being and quality of life, Gawande (2014) recognizes that medical professions tend to focus on treatment and cures, and less toward quality of life: “It’s been an experiment in social engineering, putting our fates in the hands of people valued more for their technical prowess than for their understanding of human needs”.
Sometimes in the unavoidable trials of growing old, the only concern people may have is whether they will be left alone, isolated from life and that which they love dearly. For example, personal relationships are especially cherished by aging adults as they come to terms with the fact that there is a fixed-end to life. In this present-oriented mindset, they are more selective and put more effort into emotionally meaningful relationships and activities compared with those in earlier life stages. What this sounds like is an example of the paradox of well-being – that happiness tends to improve well into later life. However, this is not always the case, because some elders tend to have a more pessimistic viewpoint, especially when the possibility of living in a nursing home threatens his or her sense of freedom; or even when the emotional states of people are already linked with failed treatments and physical frailty, like in the cases of some of Dr. Marc Agronin’s patients in his book, How We Age. In addition to losing a sense of freedom, one particular study documented that declines of perceived control were a predictor of experienced sadness in elderly adults. These elders focus on the limitations of their futures, anticipating losses and boundaries like not being able to take laps in a pool because of recent hip replacements, or the loss of eyesight that burdens the heart of traveling the world with a spouse. Studies on future time perspectives have shown that sometimes it is not necessarily the age itself that affects the way elder people think, but rather the emerging awareness of the declines they could possibly face sooner or later.
Between perspectives on ageism, theories of how people age, and the tribulations of aging successfully, there has to be a way to meet the needs of aging, while also providing a life worth living when people become frail and dependent on caregivers. As previously noted, ageism has a huge impact on the perceived future and aging of elderly people. The fact that these issues are not of serious concern and merely laughed at by most, shows that the views of ageism are practically institutionalized in today’s world. In order to promote healthy aging and combat harmful effects, these views have to be reversed and reconstructed by educators, psychologists, and physicians. Educating children and emerging adults, as well as people in the middle ages, that these negative stereotypes significantly presents a threat to older people. Promoting positive aging perspectives and engaging in happy moments with seniors can benefit the progress toward providing them a society that is attentive to needs, respectful of their worth, and happily encourages their value to society. Education about what constitutes respect and positive attitudes toward people of older age should be implemented in schools and communities in societies. Shifting away from these idealized models and processes of aging might be something that could help ease this negative bout. An educational study program to improve adolescents’ knowledge and social skills in relation to older adults reported that after the program was finished, younger people indeed had less negative bias, better attitudes, and significantly better social skills than a control group who were not educated about age-related concerns. So, if more educational programs like this were implemented, a better understanding of issues related to older people could help reverse the harmful impacts of ageism. This would indeed be more helpful in the workplace as well. Intergenerational diversities among these environments promote positive workplace outcomes and as a result, intergroup contact can actually be beneficial for reducing these negative effects of aging.
Education younger people about age-based stereotypes are not only the group that needs education. Those that are approaching and/or living in the old age categories must know the adverse side-effects of negative views on subjective aging. In adulthood, self-perceptions of aging were predicted by increased problems of activities with daily living and other medical concerns. But, making adjustments and focusing on the detail of routines in daily (and yearly) life, can have positive mental health outcomes. Spending time with loving people and those that provide a sense of life is especially important to well-being. Gawande (2014) suggests having goals to set, or something to take care of – whether it is a spouse or a pet – can contribute to overall health and reduces mortality rates among geriatric facilities. Engaging in physical exercise (if still possible) is scientifically proven to benefit older people and lead to significant cognitive function. It prolongs life, even for those facing chronic illnesses and disabilities; it protects adults against onset diabetes, lessens arthritic pain, and enlarges muscle fibers. Most importantly, having a sense of purpose in one’s life could be the best benefit of all. Older adults with a higher sense of purpose tend to show higher levels of functioning when it comes to “aging well” and greater longevity to in comparison with people who had lower sense of purpose. In the finitude of older peoples’ life, people do not ask for much – they only wish to keep sharing their story in the world, to continue making choices and sustaining connections with others, and the right to maintain their quality of life. No one wants their sense of being to be taken away and they certainly do not wish to be “treated” for growing old. Somehow, aging is within our control and beyond our control; and, it must be recognized that growing old is not a diagnosis, it is real, it is a part of being mortal.
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