How do people feel about growing older?
You might think this is a much-examined subject in the media. It’s not.
While the angst and energy of youth appears endlessly fascinating – what are they wearing and drinking? Which apps do they use? What movies or music are most appealing? – the interior life, tastes and thoughts of older adults are largely ignored.
Public opinion research on the topic is surprisingly scarce. The most authoritative study I know of was published almost three years ago by the Pew Research Center. Results were based on a survey of 2,969 adults.
One of the most provocative findings relates to peoples’ perception of when old age begins. Answers varied across the generations: while young people (age 18 to 29) said they thought 60 was the threshold, middle-aged people moved the bar closer to age 70 and people 65 and older pushed it even further, to age 74.
In an equally interesting, parallel finding, older adults said they felt younger than their actual age – by 10 years or more.
In academic circles, the study of people’s age perceptions is known as “age identification.” Research suggests that older adults think they’re younger than they actually are when they’re healthy, active, and have a purpose in life.
“To me, old age is always fifteen years older than I am,” said Bernard Baruch, a famous financier who died in 1965 at the ripe old age of 95, voicing a widespread sentiment.
This disconnect between society’s notion of what constitutes old age and how individuals perceive themselves is revealing. Who wants to identify as “old” when our cultural narrative about aging – one that revolves around physical decline, loss of efficacy and purpose, isolation and irrelevance – is fundamentally negative?
It turns out, there are health consequences attached to our perceptions about getting older.
In an intriguing line of research, Becca Levy of Yale University’s School of Public Health has shown that people who internalize negative stereotypes of aging are more likely to respond poorly to stress, less likely to take good care of themselves, and more likely to experience cardiovascular events and other serious health problems.
Conversely, people with positive images of getting older live 7.6 years longer than those with negatives outlooks, Levy’s research has demonstrated.
In other words, images of dimwitted, sluggish, incompetent, and unattractive old people that circulate widely in our society aren’t just in bad taste. They’re potentially dangerous to people’s health.
There’s a countervailing push from organizations that recognize the insidiousness of negative stereotypes and want to alter our social construct of aging. One example is the International Council on Active Aging “rebranding aging” campaign, launched last year.
The danger here is that efforts to create a new narrative focused on the positive aspects of aging – one that centers on activity, wellness, encore careers, volunteering, and having more time to spend with friends, family – risks marginalizing older people who aren’t especially healthy or well off financially.
This split is reflected in the terminology we use to describe this stage of life. Recently, I’ve come across the terms “wellderly” and “illderly.” Their meaning is clear, and more commonly used terms such as the “young-old” (translate: healthy and active) and the “old-old” (translate: frail, with a larger share of disabilities) essentially serve the same purpose.
Which brings me back to that Pew Research poll.
While there are many interesting insights in the Pew study about older people, reporters who want to know how people actually experience aging – one of life’s profound transitions – will find no substitute for face-to-face interactions.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever got from an editor was “go out there and see what’s going on, even if you don’t necessarily know what you’re looking for.” I’ll repeat it here, in a different context. When you’re writing about older people, go out and sit down with them and ask them about their lives.
You may encounter a degree of resistance: Many seniors are reluctant to talk about themselves. You may have to probe gently and be agile in redirecting your questions if the conversation isn’t moving along as you had hoped. You may have to spend some time making a personal connection before you start getting answers.
But I suspect you’ll be surprised by what older people will tell you, if you take the time, suspend judgment and truly listen.
Judith Graham (@judith_graham), AHCJ’s topic leader on aging, is writing blog posts, editing tip sheets and articles and gathering resources to help our members cover the many issues around our aging society.
If you have questions or suggestions for future resources on the topic, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.