Charles Hitztaler RN, BSN CMSRN
Society has taught us to view each forward tick of the clock as a step backwards rather than the continued progression of a life well lived. When did aging become such a chore? The excitement of a new year of life so fervent in our youth is lost in anti-aging treatments and sarcastic birthday cards perpetuating so many myths about the aging process. Aging is a completely natural and individual process. Not everyone will spend their twilight years helpless, alone, and incontinent, but this is often the picture presented in our media. The wrinkles on our faces should be met with delight and not disdain as they tell our story like the rings encircling the trunks of great redwoods towering over the forest for hundreds of years only to disclose their tales at the end of the journey upon falling to the forest floor. Still, myths persist and we will tackle ten of the most common ones here.
Myth #1: Getting old means getting ‘senile’
The term senile from the latin ‘senilis’ was originally intended to describe something as characteristic of old age, but has come to be synonymous with confusion in our modern time. It was thought our minds would naturally deteriorate with our bodies, but we now understand this to be false. Confusion in the elderly is not normal. Among those 65 years and older approximately 11% are expected to get Alzheimer’s disease . This disease is not a normal part of aging and is currently ranked as the 6th leading cause of death in the United States. Confusion may also require more urgent attention especially if it comes along suddenly. These sudden changes in mental status can be related to a wide variety of problems including infection, stroke, brain trauma or dehydration. If you suspect your loved one is acting more confused than normal you might want to call your healthcare provider and inquire more.
Myth #2 &3: We’ll all be cranky and stubborn
This myth instantly paints a picture of uncle scrooge or the old couple on the porch barking at kids passing by and reminiscing about the way things were. In reality, our behavior is in a constant state of change throughout our lives and most research heavily contradicts this long held assumption. One study conducted by the University of California at Berkeley examined the five personality traits: agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, openness, and extraversion with most individuals becoming more agreeable and conscientious with age. The lead researcher Sanjay Srivastava believes “conscientiousness grows as people mature and become better at managing their jobs and relationships, and agreeableness changes most in your 30s when you’re raising a family and need to be nurtured.” This data also debunks the myth of increased stubbornness as we age.
Myth #4: Older people are not physically intimate
The desire for physical intimacy does not decrease as we age. Physiological changes to our bodies may alter the way we act on those desires, but the desires themselves remain intact. Many older individuals feel embarrassed or ashamed of these desires because of what they perceive society will view of them. However, with many of the improvements in conscientiousness and agreeableness that come with increased age and maturity our relationships can be deeper and far more meaningful. Being able to express these feelings physically through hugging, kissing, and other forms of physical intimacy is a vital component to our overall health.
Myth #5: The Golden Oldies
The idea of the golden age of retirement can sometimes be clouded as old age can bring significant loss. Not everyone slides into old age with the same ease and some are faced with poverty, decreased control and isolation or even disability. We may lose friends and family through death or the loss of a longtime spouse or partner. These losses can further be compounded by physical losses relating to physical disability. Losing the use of a car is often one of the most significant losses for an older individual. These losses can contribute to depression in the elderly and this is not a normal part of aging.
Depression is a serious problem and in particular for the later years of life. Many of the symptoms are very non-specific and elderly individuals are less likely to seek medical help for depression specifically. Currently, those 85yrs and older have the second highest rates of suicide compared to all other age groups with males 4 times more likely than their female counterparts to commit suicide. Assistance from family, the church, or an outside resource such as meals on wheels can help mitigate these losses and bring back a measure of control. Home care services can also help someone in this time through both increased independence through transportation and household assistance and through companionship.
If your are currently in crisis: take all suicidal thoughts or thoughts of self harm seriously, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room, you may also call the toll free 24hr hotline for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).
Myth #6: Unproductive
Not everyone slides into retirement to lounge around the house watching television. Many of our biggest ideas and industry leaders surfaced in the twilight of their lives. Laura Ingalls Wilder published her first book ‘Little House In the Big Woods’ which Little House on the Prairie is based when she was 64, Anna Mary Robertson Moses ‘Grandma Moses’ an internationally acclaimed painter didn’t even start painting until after the age of 70 and Colonel Harland David Sanders didn’t begin franchising his restaurant chain Kentucky Fried Chicken until the age of 64. These are only a small sample of some of the fantastic accomplishments made by senior citizens. These examples don’t even include the other duties many older people partake in such as volunteerism, parenting, socializing and many other hobbies.
Myth #7: You can be too old to learn
Learning is a lifelong process. Thankfully, our capacity to learn continues throughout our lives. One record breaking example of this is Nola Ochs who at 95 became the oldest woman to complete her bachelor’s degree from Fort Hayes State University in Kansas. After completing her bachelor’s degree in history she then continued to break records by becoming the oldest woman to earn a master’s degree at the same university at the age of 98.
Myth #8: Incontinence
Although more common in the elderly incontinence does not have to be an inevitability and there are many methods of treatment available. Currently, approximately half of all elderly individuals are incontinent according to CDC data, but there are often underlying physiological problems that contribute to incontinence. There are 4 major types of incontinence and each has its own causes and treatments. Many people are embarrassed or nervous about approaching their healthcare providers, but with the right treatment many of these forms of incontinence can be controlled or minimized. For more on incontinence please click here (insert link to separate article about incontinence).
Myth #9: All elderly are the same
There is as much diversity among the aged population as there is with any other age group. We all come from diverse and unique lifestyles and backgrounds. It is our own experiences and influences that shape what we are and as we age we become exposed to more and more of these. For this reason the elderly are often the most diverse populations. Most of us can remember our school age years where we found ourselves engaging with similarly minded friends or social groups only to see these dissolve in time as our life experiences expanded. If you have ever worked at an area where seniors eat with each other you will quickly see that there are no clearly visible social groups. This relates to the increased agreeableness and conscientiousness found with the maturity of older age. Looking from the outside it may appear as if seniors are similar, but this could not be further from the truth.
Myth #10: Older people should not be physically active
Older people are actually more likely to benefit from regular physical activity. Exercise helps improve not only your heart and lungs, but also bowel motility and joint health. Physical changes can sometimes impair a person’s ability to exercise, but the benefits remain present. One meta-analysis of nine different studies demonstrated a decreased mortality rate of 22% compared to non-exercisers with only 15 minutes of activity and up to 35% if the activity was increased. Memory is improved and functional disability is significantly decreased with exercise.
Despite these benefits many older individuals are scared to engage in physical activity for fear of injury or safety. There are many programs within the community such as silver sneakers, SAIL, and numerous other programs located through the parks and recreation department. We can also assist with a basic home exercise program and direct supervision from one of our caregivers to assist you in maintaining your strength and reaping the many benefits of physical activity.
The prospect of aging brings with it many misconceptions and fears, but it doesn’t have to. With the right assistance and guidance we can all be healthy and productive well into our old age. If you or a loved one needs assistance or guidance for help within the home please give us a call or click on the image below. Feel free to comment or ask questions.
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