How do you see yourself in old age? Still with mountains to climb and worlds to conquer? Or do you see yourself in a front-porch rocker with friends and family, treated with respect and love? Or perhaps alone in an institution, with no privacy and little dignity?
Beliefs and myths about this stage of life shape how we see our future. Yet it's a stage of life that few people reached in the past. Consider this fact: More than half the people who ever lived to be 65 are alive today. That alone suggests that myths about aging based on past generations may not hold true for this one. Let's look at 10 of those myths, and see what experts have to say about them.
Myth One: Growing old means dependency, probably in an institution
The reality is not so grim. Psychologist K. Warner Schaie, Ph.D., director of the Gerontology Center at Pennsylvania State University, says no more than one of four people will stay in a nursing home at any time in their lives. That includes short-term rehabilitation visits. In 1999, just 3.4 percent of U.S. seniors lived in nursing homes. "There are many older adults who remain quite healthy until well into their 70s, 80s and beyond," says Martin Gorbien, M.D., director of geriatric medicine at the Johnston R. Bowman Health Center in Chicago.
Myth Two: All old people are poor
Not so. The Census Bureau's latest figures show that 9.7 percent of Americans 65 and older fall below the poverty line—a historic low. What's more, Americans 50 and older—who make up just over a third of the population—have 80 percent of the financial assets and 50 percent of the discretionary income, says Laura Rossman, AARP Services' director of new product development.
AARP figures show that grandparents spend $30 billion a year on gifts and entertainment for grandchildren, Ms. Rossman adds.
Myth Three: When you get older, you don't need as much sleep
You may need as much sleep as when you were younger, but you may have more trouble getting a good night's sleep. "It is not so much that there is a decline in the number of hours needed, but rather that sleep patterns may change with a tendency to more naps and shorter nighttime periods of deep sleep," says Dr. Schaie.
Myth Four: If you live long enough, you're going to be senile
The odds are against it. "The probability of senility at age 65 is only about 5 percent," Dr. Schaie says. "It rises to about 20 percent by age 85."
The term "senility" is no longer used to describe dementia. Alzheimer's disease is the most common type of primary progressive dementia. Alzheimer's is linked to age, Dr. Gorbien says, and older people worried about it should seek an assessment with a geriatrician, neurologist or psychiatrist.
"Early detection of Alzheimer's disease is so important," he says. New medications may slow the progression of the disease and help keep people independent.
Myth Five: Age means weak, brittle bones
Osteoporosis, which affects both men and women, is preventable and treatable. "Many older adults are fearful of experiencing injury, such as a fracture due to an accidental fall," says Dr. Gorbien. "The aggressive detection of osteoporosis is important. People with certain risk factors should ask their doctor about a simple, safe bone density test. all women over age 65 should ask about a bone density test. It is a recommended screening test for that group even if they do not have risk factors. " Weight-bearing activity and exercise can help prevent and treat osteoporosis and osteoarthritis. So can adequate vitamin D and calcium. Prescription medications can slow, halt or sometimes reverse osteoporosis. These newer drugs are effective and can be taken once a week or even once a month.
Myth Six: Old dogs can't learn new tricks
It's probably time to retire this cliche. "Old dogs can learn new tricks if they want to," says Dr. Gorbien.
Dr. Schaie says research supports the idea that elderly people can learn new things. "Many laboratory studies, and of course programs such as Elderhostel, have shown that older persons can learn new skills and recover proficiency on previously learned skills," he says.
Myth Seven: Older people should limit physical activity
Sorry, but the experts aren't about to back a couch-potato lifestyle for the elderly. "If anything," Dr. Schaie says, "most older persons need to increase physical activity in order to maintain aerobic capacity and muscle strength."
He says older people should limit their activity only because of specific disabilities and after talking with their doctors.
"There is exercise for everyone," Dr. Gorbien says. "Even frail older adults in nursing homes can benefit from a well-designed exercise plan." Tai chi, yoga or water aerobics could fit into such a plan.
Myth Eight: Sexual urges normally cease in later years
Sexual urges go on to the end of life in healthy people. "However, there is a progressive decline in frequency of sexual experiences," says Dr. Shaie. Doctors can treat some of the physical problems that interfere.
Dr. Gorbien adds that a person's sexual history through midlife is a good way to tell who will stay interested in an active sex life.
Myth Nine: Old age is a time of inevitable infirmity
The key is the word "inevitable." There is a slowing of response time, an increased chance of chronic disease and a decline in senses such as hearing and vision, Dr. Schaie says. "However, the vast majority of older persons are not disabled," he adds.
Not all older adults are the same, Dr. Gorbien adds. At any age, people have a range of skills and strengths. That's true for a group of 90-year-olds or a group of 30-year-olds.
Myth 10: Older folks are alone and lonely
More older people live alone, but they are not necessarily lonely. Relationships may grow more intense in old age, Dr. Schaie says.
More people live alone as the population ages, Dr. Gorbien says. And Dr. Schaie says gender differences in average life spans leave many more women than men widowed. Widowed men are more likely than women to remarry, Dr. Schaie says, "because of the availability of a larger pool of eligible partners."
"Most seniors are active," adds AARP spokesman Tom Otwell. Many have paying jobs, regularly volunteer, garden or help care for grandchildren, for instance.
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