Health is harmed when elderly are treated like frail children

Aging Gratefully

Aging is not good for your health.

You know how it goes. Fine print gets finer. The sound of voices becomes blunted. Knees and hips get creaky. Memory plays tricks. The stomach complains.

We all want to live a long life, but does anyone really want to be old?

Actually, the answer appears to be yes. As long as you do it right.

Bonus years

A Yale study, published in 2002, used a long-term survey to follow about 650 people over the age of 50 for several years. Analysis showed that people who had a positive perception of aging lived an average of more than seven years longer than people with a negative perception.

A more recent study, reported this past summer in the journal Psychology and Aging, found that a positive perception of aging among the elderly may actually be quite common.

Researchers at the University of Queensland and University of New South Wales in Australia followed a large group of subjects between the ages of 66 and 91. Another group, ages 18 to 30, was also followed. The Australian team collected data on frequency of social activity and surveyed subjects to assess social satisfaction.

As you might expect, subjects in the younger group engaged in more social activities than the older subjects. Older subjects also tended to spend more time completely alone.

But these additional findings seem to run against the conventional wisdom of our youth- oriented culture:

  • Older subjects were just as happy with their quieter social lives as younger subjects were with their active lives
  • Older subjects were more likely to find common experiences uplifting
  • Older subjects were less likely to become upset over little annoyances

A little sharpness

The Yale study I mentioned above was led by Becca Levy, an associate professor of epidemiology, who’s about to publish a new study that examines the health effects of negative aging images.

She recently told the New York Times that when older people are constantly exposed to negative ideas of aging – such as “feeble” or “forgetful” – they have higher stress levels, poorer memory, poorer balance, and lower survival rates compared to elderly subjects who aren’t treated as if they’re ancient relics.

The Times also noted another study that examined the effect of elderspeak on older subjects with dementia.

Calling an older person who you don’t know “dear” or “sweetie” may seem considerate, but it’s likely to be heard as elderspeak. Using the same tones you might use to talk to a pet or a child is elderspeak. Talking to an older person through a younger companion (as if the elder isn’t there) is elderspeak.

Researchers at the University of Kansas found that elderspeak contributes to a “downward spiral” of lowered self-esteem, withdrawal, depression, and a tendency toward dependent behaviors.

All of this is especially upsetting to someone who’s losing cognitive function while trying to maintain a semblance of normalcy. In many of these cases, patients who react irritably to elderspeak are sometimes given inadequate care.

Ellen Kirschman – a police psychologist who’s nearing 70 – has come up with an interesting way to avoid elderspeak.

Ms. Kirschman told the Times that she avoids condescending treatment by using profanity when she’s around people who don’t know her. She said, “That makes them think, This is someone to be reckoned with. A little sharpness seems to help.”

And it probably adds a few #@$&% years to her life as well.

“Aging and Social Satisfaction: Offsetting Positive and Negative Effects” Psychology and Aging, Vol. 23, No. 2, June 2008,
“Aging is Satisfying, New Research Shows” ScienceDaily, 6/17/08,
“In ‘Sweetie’ and ‘Dear,’ a Hurt for the Elderly” John Leland, New York Times, 10/7/08,