Perceptions of Aging *

David A. Gershaw, Ph.D.

As life expectancies continue to lengthen and the elderly population grows, our perception of aging becomes more important. Our perceptions of aging influence our interactions with these people. How are the elderly perceived? Are these perceptions accurate?

Psychologists have investigated these questions by measuring people's attitudes. Reviewing the psychological literature in 1971, one researcher concluded that young adults tend to negatively stereotype the elderly as generally tired, ill, isolated and sexually inactive. Does this match your image of the elderly? Or are you more knowledgeable? You can test yourself by labeling each of the following statements as True or False.

1. The majority of old people are senile defective memory, disoriented, demented.

2. All five senses tend to decline in old age.

3. Most old people have no interest in or capacity for sexual relations.

4. Lung capacity tends to decline in old age.

5. The majority of old people feel miserable most of the time.

6. Physical strength tends to decline in old age.

7. At least one-tenth of the aged are living in long-stay institutions nursing homes, mental hospitals, homes for the aged, etceteras.

8. Aged drivers have fewer accidents per person than drivers under 65.

9. Most older workers cannot work as effectively as younger workers.

10. About 80% of the aged are healthy enough to carry out normal activities.

11. Most old people are set in their ways and unable to change.

12. Old people usually take longer to learn something new.

13. It is almost impossible for most old people to learn new things.

14. The reaction time of most old people tends to be slower than the reaction time of younger people.

15. In general, most older people are pretty much alike.

16. The majority of old people are seldom bored.

17. The majority of old people are socially isolated and lonely.

18. Older workers have fewer accidents than younger workers.

19. More than 15% of the United States population is now 65 or over.

20. Most medical practitioners tend to give low priority to the aged.

21. The majority of older people have incomes below the poverty level as defined by the Federal Government.

22. The majority of old people are working or would like to have some kind of work to do including housework and volunteer work.

23. Older people tend to become more religious as they age.

24. The majority of old people are seldom irritated or angry.

To check your accuracy, count the number of statements you answered correctly. Odd-numbered items are False, while even-numbered items are True. Before you get upset at your score, compare your score to the average scores of other people. In 1980, reviewing 25 studies, which used these statements, led to these averages of correct answers for the following groups.

As you can see, those with more education were more accurate in their perceptions of the elderly. However, this accuracy was relatively unaffected by the race, age or sex of the respondents. The five most common myths are that most elderly people:

Regardless of how accurate you were on these statements, I hope this article will help you to realize that the elderly even with the limitations of aging are still people. Treat them with the same consideration and respect that you expect from others.

* Adapted from Henry L. Roediger III's Psychology Update, Little, Brown and Company, Fall, 1985, pages 6-8.

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