Gerontology–the study of aging—is becoming an increasingly popular college major due to the aging population explosion. On the first day of the semester, a gerontology professor recently asked the class, “what age do you consider ‘old?’” The most common response, 30, came from the 18-21 year old students. 30! After some good-natured groans by the non-traditional age “returning” students, the professor discussed that around 30 is when some aging processes in our bodies start, but by no means does 30 count as ‘old’. Unfortunately their answer is not surprising: American society idealizes youth and dreads aging.
Instead of dreading aging, it is important to understand it so people can best prepare themselves for the journey. While most stereotypes about older adults are greatly exaggerated, many biological changes do take place both physically and cognitively. Nearly every organ and system in the body is a bit less efficient than it once was but this does not mean inevitable disease or disability. People have much more power over how they age than most realize. This control extends not only to the physical body but also impacts other major areas of life: socialization, finances, romantic relationships, work and hobbies, and mental health.
Many people tend to think of older adults living in nursing homes and needing help getting around. It is true that older adults are more susceptible to a number of chronic and acute conditions. But getting sick is not the norm; in fact most older adults are healthy and live in their own homes. While aging organs and systems are less efficient and everyone has to contend with any genetic baggage handed down to them, individuals maintain significant control over how they experience much of the physical aging experience.
Most human bodies are quite resilient during early adulthood. For example, smoking usually does not have an immediate impact on a younger person. But an older person’s ability to take in oxygen diminishes slightly so not only does smoking contribute to diseases like emphysema but it also decreases already reduced oxygen capacity. While a younger person may be able to get away with eating a high fat diet and skimping on exercise, older adults will see more negative consequences. During aging, everyone’s blood pressure rises a bit and metabolic rates slow down. These naturally occurring processes make those negative habits riskier. On the other hand, when a senior takes good care of himself, he is much less likely to see problems such as heart attack, weight gain or respiratory conditions.
There’s no question about it: aging is a whole lot easier when we have financially prepared for retirement. This is one of the most important things a person can do to positively impact her aging experience. More money always translates to better options for both needs and wants. Retirement is obviously going to be more fun if you can take a spontaneous trip to the beach when your friends call. When a senior has access to sufficient funds, there is much more control about if, and when, he wants to remain at home if his health declines. Too many seniors are living below their pre-retirement standard because they believed the myth that Social Security and Medicare benefits will cover all necessities.
If a middle-aged or elderly person has not planned well for retirement, it may not be too late to improve the situation. Deferring Social Security payments, remaining employed longer, and seeking estate planning advice from an elder law attorney or trusted financial advisor are some possible strategies for improving financial status.
The one part of aging that Americans actually seem to look forward to is retirement. Particularly when the senior is financially comfortable, the idea of endless free time may be appealing. In reality, plans to golf, volunteer at church, babysit the grandchildren, travel or redecorate the house is essential to a happy retirement. Projects and plans that stimulate the mind, encourage socialization, and promote feelings of productivity can keep seniors healthier both mentally and physically.
A common myth is that most seniors are asexual and older men are impotent. The reality is that most seniors can enjoy sexual relationships if they want. There are medications and health conditions that can inhibit sexual feelings and performance, but these situations can be addressed if the senior communicates openly with his physician. It is normal to be sexually active during the later years of life.
A healthy sex life is associated with positive mental and physical health. Seniors with spouses or partners should prioritize sexual and romantic satisfaction. Single or widowed seniors may consider dating. In fact, the over 50 population is one of the fastest growing segments of online dating.
Mental Health & Cognition
Clinical depression is not a natural part of the aging process, despite the stereotype of the lonely, sad older woman living by herself. We are more likely to suffer losses during the aging process and those losses can certainly trigger someone who has struggled with depression previously or even initiate a first-time diagnosis. For example, a recently widowed senior who is no longer able to drive and is moving into an assisted living community may have a very positive outlook despite typical feelings of grief and loss. Another person experiencing similar circumstances may need medication and counseling to combat the depression diagnosis that occurs. Seniors need to realize that changes in mental health status are not to be accepted as part of getting older; they need to be discussed and treated by the doctor just like any other illness.
Memory and aging is another area that is typically misunderstood. While Alzheimer’s disease and permanent dementia are not part of the normal aging process, tip of the tongue moments and slower reflex, reaction and recall times are. Any challenges with short-term memory and confusion should immediately be addressed with a doctor. There are many reasons besides Alzheimer’s disease that these issues can occur. Many of them, including urinary tract infections, dehydration, and medication side effects can be reversed with proper treatment. Seniors should never tolerate being told that forgetting their grandchild’s name is a normal part of getting older.
Exercise, eating healthfully, socializing with friends and family and reducing stress are associated with positive mental and cognitive health. Since heart disease, diabetes and head injuries are linked with permanent dementia, it is important to prevent these or manage them responsibly if they occur.
Americans have every reason to look forward to getting older, especially when they take control of the aging process through healthy habits. Dispelling myths and stereotypes about getting older is an important step to creating a society that embraces aging instead of fearing it.