EJ White / AdobeStock
Source: EJ White / AdobeStock

What kind of people play Bingo, need help crossing the street, and prefer hard candies that don't stick to their dentures?

What kind of people are mentally stuck in the past, pining for the good old days?

What kind of people tend to get pneumonia, have trouble opening jars, and do little all day besides knit and watch TV?

If you said old people, I’ve got bad news for you. Cultural stereotypes of aging are camping out in your mind, and they affect how you yourself will age.

In our youth-obsessed society, older people are considered irrelevant, and aging can feel like something shameful. Just consider the oft-cited advice, “It’s not polite to ask a lady her age.” (You wouldn’t want her to feel terrible about herself, now, would you?)

Even if you don’t want to hold this attitude, a culture's distaste for aging seeps into the subconscious mind of every member of that culture.

What You Don't Know Can Hurt You

It happens in childhood. Kids watch adults sideline or otherwise devalue older people, and they don’t question the inherent prejudice of the behavior.

They overhear seniors talking about how awful it is to be old, but they don't even think about it. It has nothing to do with them.

Fast-forward to later in life...

Once the prejudice sneaks in through the back door of your subconscious mind as a child, it continues to live there whether you "believe" it or not. It’s a time capsule that pops open by itself when you reach a certain age. 

Once your senior years are looming -- and that point is different for different people -- your subconscious mind calls up the stereotypes of aging that were planted there when you were young. And as Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer has noted, “Wherever you put the mind, the body will follow.”

Expectations of physical maladies with advancing age often play out in reality, presumably due to the mind-body connection.

Feelings of worthlessness, irrelevance or being a burden may also appear, right on schedule, to align with the ideas in your subconscious time capsule.

In the U.S., as opposed to many other countries in which elders are revered, it’s difficult to enter your later years without losing self-esteem.

If you can find ways to flout the stereotypes that exist in your own mind, you may be able to work against the downward spiral of mental and physical health that people over 65 are “supposed” to experience.

In certain areas of life, acceptance is healthy. Not this one. Elderly people who reject negative stereotypes of themselves are happier and healthier than those who buy in to depressing narratives about being old.

It’s not necessary to reject, or lie about, your age. Just don’t stop doing things you enjoy on the basis of that number alone.

Whenever you hear someone imply that older people are frail, lonely, sick or useless, consciously challenge those statements in your mind.

As you age, make sure you continue to engage fully in your life and community.

Retired, Not Dead

Retirement may bring work officially to an end, but now there’s time for other projects you might have put aside. American painter Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses is said to have produced some 1,500 paintings in the three decades before her death at age 101.

Painting for Moses was the fulfillment of a childhood dream. Do you have a dream you haven’t fully realized yet? 

Your “golden years” could find you in the pink of health. It’s not too late to pay attention to eating right and being physically active – but talk to your doctor first if this is a change for you. 

If you can, visit countries like India, Vietnam, China and Japan, where elders are not just respected and cared for, but actively included in daily life. The accumulated wisdom of elders draws younger people to them for advice and support. They are far from sidelined.

A different cultural perspective on aging might help you dislodge some of the harmful stereotypes kicking around in the back (or front) of your brain.

Here's another idea with anecdotal support: Some people start counting backwards when they reach a certain age.

For example, after they turn 70, they count their next birthday as their 69th, followed by their 68th, 67th, etc. By this method, a 75-year-old is encouraged to think of herself as being 10 years younger.

Counting backward is not about lying to yourself or anyone else (these folks are usually the first to tell you that they’re counting backward). It’s about supporting a vibrant, continuing engagement with life.

Whatever it takes, realize that aging is cultural as well as physical. If you live – or grew up -- in an ageist society like the U.S., make a conscious decision to reject harmful stereotypes of aging.

Your brain, and possibly your body, will thank you

References

Carp, F. M., & Carp, A. (1981). Mental health characteristics and acceptance-rejection of old age. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 51(2), 230-241.

Langer, E. J. (1989). Mindfulness. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley/Addison Wesley Longman.

Orth, U., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Robins, R. W. (2010). Self-esteem development from young adulthood to old age: A cohort-sequential longitudinal study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(4), 645-658.

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