When you think of an elderly person, what do you think of? Someone bedridden, ill, permanently stuck in a state of misery, aging away? Or do you think of someone playing golf all day and ordering the early bird special at a retirement community somewhere warm? Although both of these scenarios can and do happen, these are both stereotypes. In reality, the elder years can be as enjoyable and productive and full of life as middle age, youth, and childhood. To stereotype elderhood as a state of either blissful, lazy retirement or depressing, wasting illness limits our awareness of the wonderful opportunities available to elders, and by extension to ourselves in our own elder years.
Many schools take their students on field trips to nursing homes at some point in the curriculum as part of a holiday or some other event, and primarily as an act of community service. To children in these school programs, visiting nursing homes, they may get the impression that becoming old means an automatic placement in a nursing home or assisted living facility. It can be scary for a young child to see someone in a wheelchair, or someone blinded by age. But this is not the reality for many elders, and it doesn’t have to be the reality for that young child when they grow up. The Aging stereotype is to believe that elderhood will be some specific lifestyle that may not be particularly enjoyable or even fulfilling. But this stereotype is wrong, and we must be careful to avoid limiting our thinking and awareness of elderhood into a limited state of life.
One of the things that has been lost with the advent of assisted living and modern home healthcare is the classical family of “several generations under one roof.” In previous years, an elder person in need of care would find a fulfilling place in a home with their adult children and their grandchildren, filling an important role in the family unit. With the advent of more independent living, and the growing assisted living and home healthcare industry, elder people no longer are forced to move in with family as they age. Instead, they can maintain their independence with home health aides, or move to a facility with peers their own age, where their needs are met and maintained. For the individual elder person, the resources available for their care are more numerous than ever.
However, this transition has led to an unusual consequence. The grandchildren, who in previous years would have shared a home with an elder grandparent, no longer have the exposure to the lives of elders that they would have previously. Instead of understanding that elders can be bright, happy, joyful people, they have their perception of aging tainted by their exposure to media (which can portray elderhood as traumatic) and their exposure to assisted living facilities, which can be unfamiliar and strange to a child. These impressions and stereotypes can paint a negative image of aging in our minds as children and lead us to fear our own aging process and our own elderhood.
Aging stereotypes, pushed forward by limited exposure to actual elder experiences and lifestyles, can negatively affect our perception of the process of aging. Growing old doesn’t have to be scary, or sad, or miserable. Growing old is an important part of life, a time for reflection, for reminiscing, for resting. It’s important that we avoid stereotyping elders and their lives, both for their benefit, and our own.
“The foundation for successful aging should being during youth and be built on throughout life.”