What do you think about the elderly? Reflect on this for a moment. What did it make you feel when you read these words commonly associated with aging? Did you nod your head? Or were you enraged by what you saw?
The sad thing here is: no matter what your answer to these questions was, it is still possible that you have negative stereotypes about the elderly. Science shows clearly that stereotypes work below our level of awareness. In most cases that is for the best. If we would not have any stereotypes about anyone, then we would also not know how to behave, because it is them that allow us to predict what another person is likely to think, feel and do.
It is just that in this case, we destroy our own potential just because of what society tells us that old people should be like. And that is sad.I mean, do you want to be fragile, vulnerable, grumpy, or lonely? I doubt it. But the good news is: you don’t have to. You can be old and yet make a great contribution to the world.
Because you grow up in a world where people believe that the elderly are fragile and senile, as a youngster you come to believe exactly this. When you are still young, there is no way for you to find out whether or not all these things we hear about the elderly are true, after all. There is no magic machine that can make you old for a second, so that you can see for yourself. You have to wait. Then, when the time has come, the stereotypes about the elderly are already so deeply ingrained in your subconsciousness, that you can’t help but act accordingly.
You believe that old people are forgetful, and that makes you forgetful.
You believe that old people are grumpy, and that makes you grumpy.
You believe that old people are slow, and that makes you slow.
….and so on. In other words: the stereotypes we hold about a group make us behave exactly the way that we think we should behave considering that we are a member of that group. In a way, humanity has created its own viscous circle that no generation can escape. Those before us are the living proof that age leads to fragility, after all.
So what can we do about all this?
Well, after reading until this point, the answer to this question must seem obvious: by changing the way we think about the elderly. In her research, Becca R. Levy has shown that by priming people of old age with words that are positively associated with age (like wisdom, for instance), they perform significantly better on several performance tests. One example is a handwriting test. The handwriting of those who were previously primed with positive words was rated as much clearer by a panel of judges than the one primed with negative words. In the same way, they performed better on memory tests and on tests of walking speed.
But what’s even more exciting: she also found that people who had a more positive perception about aging when they were younger, lived on average 7.5 years longer. 7.5 years! Plus, with a more positive perception about aging, they most likely also saw themselves in a much more positive light during that time, meaning that their last years must have been much more pleasant than those with negative perceptions.
But changing your way of thinking is only the first step in terms of improving your life in high age
You also need to change your behaviour.
The belief alone that you are forgetful does not make you forgetful. But what it does is that it creates lazy habits of thinking. It starts with simple things such as grocery shopping. Instead of remembering what you need to buy, you more and more rely on a list. Sooner or later for everything in your life, you need a list. Before you know it, you do not use your memory at all. And that’s when it becomes dangerous. Because of the plasticity of our brain, the less we use one of it’s functions, the worse we become at it. Our skills deteriorate. This is why, when your grandfather or another of your loved one’s started preferring to stay at home, his health condition became worse and worse. Until he never left home at all.