Embracing Aging: Debunking Common Misconceptions & Celebrating Seniors

Embracing Aging: Debunking Common Misconceptions & Celebrating Seniors

[Harrison]  Good morning, Ms. Joan.

[Joan] Good morning, Harrison.

[Harrison] Hey, so this morning I wanted to talk about this idea of common misconceptions that either families have or the seniors themselves have of what life will be like as they age. You know, a lot of the outcomes that we experience in life are due to how we think about things, but what are some of the things that people tend to believe that maybe aren’t accurate? It could be the adult, the adult kids, or the seniors themselves. What are some of these misconceptions about aging that seem to permeate this space?

[Joan] It’s huge. Many years ago, a colleague and I at Wesley Woods developed a, uh, 20-point quiz on normal aging, myths about aging, and then, and as recently as one month ago here, everybody fails it.

Misconception 1: Aging & Development is All Downhill

Nobody, I’ve yet to find somebody, who gets it all right, so there are so, so many misconceptions about aging. Um, I’ll go back to when I was in graduate school even, uh, that was a while ago. We were taught that once you get to a certain age, you don’t grow any more gray matter in your brain. And you know, the old, the old thing about you, you go up like this and then it’s downhill.

So if you send somebody their 40th birthday, you know it’s downhill from there. There’s that still perception, where now we know that if you stay healthy and, you know, follow some guidelines, you go like this and then you, you plateau and then you might suddenly die. So there are just so many misconceptions.

Um, one thing about not growing any gray matters, one of the big misconceptions, uh, we now know that older adults can learn, can grow. Uh, they change. There’s a misconception that all older people are the same. Um, and yet we know now that they’re more different than you and I. They become more who they are, um, as they age, and they drop some of the, um, what I call sensors of people – I, I always use this example if, if my hair looks horrible, you’re not gonna say anything to me, but an older person will say, “Joan, what happened to your hair? It looks awful.” I mean, so those, those screens are removed. So, so we treat a lot of older people, as if they’re all the same. We don’t always look at what is unique about them.

One of the things I always say is who, when people say, what are, what am I gonna be like? And I’m gonna say the same thing as you are now. Your strong points will be stronger and your weak points will be stronger so that, you know, some of that happens.

Misconception 2: Sexuality in an Assisted Living Community

One thing we deal with a lot in organizations and in home is a whole thing about sex. I was just asked recently to go to do a talk on sexuality in an assisted living community. The staff as well as the residents, you know, sort of think, “well, that just that doesn’t happen anymore once you get to whatever age.” And yet we know that sexuality and sex is an important part of the lives of older people, and it’s very hard, especially in an institutional environment, to have them have the privacy and the opportunity to enjoy that.

Misconception 3: Driving & Accidents

Alot of the misconceptions we have are around health. You know, we do think that a lot of things are, you know, older people, they shouldn’t drive. And yet we know that there are less accidents among older people than there are younger people. Many doctors, unfortunately don’t know even them.

When we gave this quiz to fourth-year medical students, they all failed it too because they’re not taught what is normal aging. And so if we love a conception, that because you’re 80 years old, you’re gonna be frail, you’re gonna be, you know, just, uh, not able to do a lot of stuff, then what happens is the older person, him or herself, starts to also believe that, and, “oh, I’m too old to go on a trip or I’m too old to do this.” And so you hear those things. We’ve talked, I know in some of the past seminars about family members wanting their mother or their father to be the mother or father they always wanted them to be. And that’s not going to happen. People can grow and they can change, but they’re fundamentally who they are.

Misconception 4: Aging Activities Change

And one thing that’s important is for people, whether it’s a family member, whether it’s an outside caregiver is to learn who they are, who they what, and what have they done in their life so that you can help them grow. We see a lot of older people who have never, painted or never wrote a poem, suddenly can write poems and paint beautiful pictures. I worked in an independent community one time where a gentleman who was an engineer who never did anything with his hands, he was all, you know, thinking he built a crib for his great, great-grandchild and he was so proud of it. They, they had a woodworking shop. They taught him how to do this stuff and he did it. So, you know, there, there’s just a lot of things that people can learn and, and grow to do. There was a community that I was in, in Milwaukee where they identified, some older people living in an independent setting who were showing some signs of early dementia, and the Milwaukee Symphony went in and taught them how to play a new instrument. And so when they did a pre-test and then a post-test on terms of their mentation, it was a dramatic change. And so again, it’s, it’s just the conception that because you’re old, you can’t or shouldn’t, you know, do certain things. I know you can read now in, in our country there are a lot of universities that are opening up free tuition for seniors so that the seniors can be in the class with the younger people or go on the campus. Some people are building senior communities on a, a campus so they can have that exchange of ideas. And finding a doctor who truly understands and likes to work with older people.

Now, Medicare has got a lot of rules now that, you know, they have to do certain things. But, just even doing a quick survey to see if that person is really is having some early signs of dementia, or do they have a urinary tract infection, which is one of the things that can very often make an older person look or act as if they have dementia.

Misconception 4: Treating Elders Like Children

But getting to the bottom of that, another misconception a lot of times is that people that are older become children. And if there’s one thing, if you haven’t seen me in a rage, it takes a lot to get me in a rage. Or if you say that about a child, an older person, I’m gonna just, you know, take your hand off because they’re not children.

And if we start treating them that way… I, I tell the story that I, when I, I knew I was old when I went to the department stores and suddenly the sales people will call me honey. They didn’t call me honey or sweetie when I was 40, but now they’ll call me honey or sweetie. And so, and when, when I. Confront or, or, or nicely say something to them they think they’re being nice and polite, but in fact it is, you know, pat you on the head cuz you’re a little old lady kind of thing. Yes. Rather than you’re a customer who has money to spend in your department. So, so it’s treating older people as if they’re not, that they’re not really capable of learning new things, doing new things, participating actively. You know, the assumption is because you are old, you’re going to all have dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, when in fact that’s not true. It’s a, you know, it’s a terrible disease and it does affect a lot of people and unfortunately, a lot of the people it affects are older people, but that doesn’t go along with the aging process.

Misconception 5: Changes in Senses

So it’s really senses. You know, we know that a normal part of aging is all of your sense, sight, taste change. They do go down, but not all older people are deaf. So you don’t even scream at ’em. Um, they’re not all, mostly as older people need glasses. You know, most, most adults find, somehow eat somehow in the forties or something their vision changes and they need, if nothing else, readers or something. Taste changes. And that’s one of the things that sometimes we have misconceptions about. A mama who always liked a certain thing, just doesn’t like it anymore, doesn’t taste good. So learning what, what’s different about the taste?

Hearing is one of the real big misconceptions. A lot of older people fight getting a hearing aid because everybody knows I’m old if I have a hearing aid. And yet we now know studies have proven that if in fact you have a hearing problem and you don’t get assistance with a hearing aid, that part of your brain will shut down and you’ll never be able to, even with a hearing aid hear well again. So I kind of always use that as a warning sign because there’s so many older people in the communities and, and homes that I work in. Look, I can’t hear you dear, but they don’t get a hearing aid. Yes. Or if they get one, they forget to put it in or they don’t take care of it. But it’s really, really important that people know that they’ll lose, permanently, lose their hearing if they don’t get that assistance.

I encourage people to read and understand what is a normal aging process? What happens to somebody normally, you know, like I mentioned, the senses do decline. But if you get glasses, if you need hearing aids, um, if you realize that maybe your taste is changing, you need a little more spice or you need a little less spice because things don’t quite take change, stay the same.

Your mobility – are you staying active? Walking doing things to keep your body functioning well. Balance is a big issue for older people. When they fall, there’s usually a reason for that. You know, either they have, they have a scatter rug in their, in their home that’s, that they trip over or they wear, some of these people will wear these slide slippers around the house.

Well, those are so dangerous and, you know, so kind of take for children or caregivers to take a look and see, you know, how is the year home or apartment laid out? Is it safe? Do they have or need rails in their shower? Just for that stability. And even if they don’t want to, or I can’t afford to install a heavy one, you can go to Home Depot and buy a suction cup, you know, rails, that you can put in your shower or in your bathroom, those kinds of things. So taking, knowing what’s going on, knowing what’s been going on with your mother or father, aunt, whatever, you know, and, just realizing that because they’re old, that does not mean they can’t learn. They can’t grow, they can’t enjoy life. That’s my spiel. Yeah.

Seniors Have So Much To Offer

[Harrison] Well, what we, what we see a lot, and I’m curious to get your thoughts on this, is either the family member or the senior believes that they don’t have anything else to offer. They’re just sort of on the train out of, out of town, and they, they really don’t have anything else going on in their lives that, that, that is meaningful and important. Or you have somebody who takes that belief system and understands that their accumulated experiences and wisdom and talents and life experience means something and therefore they have something to offer the world still and offer their families.

How do you think, let’s say adult children or family caregivers, can help keep seniors in the mindset or push them towards the mindset that says, “Hey, your, your life experiences, the skillsets that you’ve gained over the years, and your wisdom is worth sharing with the family. And. It’s worth you believing that you still have something to offer.” How, how can family members do that with their senior loved ones?

[Joan] First of all, they have to believe it, but assuming they do, yeah. Um, to be very proactive. Um, you know, have a family dinner and, and with your children there and say, you know, mama, you know, tell us about what, what happened here or what did you, do you know about this, or what do you think about this?

So you actively include them in discussions. You include them in decision making. A lot of children, older children will make decisions for their parents. “Oh, I don’t think I’m gonna take mama here cuz she, she, I don’t think she could walk that far.” But to say, “you know, mama, we’re going to be, we’re going to the zoo, or we’re going here, love you to come, you feel like today you’re gonna be able to walk with us, or do we need to, you know, get an adaptive device?” But in to really actively encourage them and include them in events and in decision making, in sharing their experiences and learning about what’s going on with their children and their grandchildren.

You know, sometimes people say, “well, don’t tell mama this.” I had a friend who, who, uh, has a elderly mother and she was going to have to have a heart stent put in. “She’s, oh, please don’t tell my mama, you know, I don’t want her to worrying.” Well, you know, what happens if she dies and her mother doesn’t know that she even had this process.

You know, older people are not fragile little. Now if your mama has always been such a worrywart and something, then maybe you make that decision. But just, you know, include them. Tell them what’s going on. Make them a really active part of your family.

[Harrison] Yeah, that’s good advice. Thanks so much, Ms. Joan!

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