Wednesday, February 09, 2011


I think old people are wise, experienced, kind, content and knowledgeable. I do not think they are feeble, wrinkled, cantankerous, slow or boring.

The above isn't quite true. Julie and I had a discussion last night about stereotypes. We both agreed that most of the older people we have known have created less than positive stereotypes. That's sad both for them and for us. Here's why.

Early this morning I finished reading Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior by Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman. Near the end of the book is a discussion of research by Yale University concerning hearing loss and elders' stereotypes. (A web search led to this article: Elders' Stereotypes Predict Hearing Decline). The findings are intriguing.

To measure age stereotypes, participants were asked, "When you think of an old person, what are the first five words or phrases that come to mind?" The responses were judged on how negative or positive they were and how internal or external they were. Stereotypes rated negative included "senile" and "feeble," whereas stereotypes rated positive included "wise" and "active." External stereotypes included visual images such as grey hair, wrinkles and stooped posture. The study adjusted for initial levels of hearing, as well as several other variables that are known to affect hearing including age, education, gender, race, depression, chronic conditions and smoking history.

Older persons with more negative and external age stereotypes performed worse on hearing measures at the end of the three-year study. According to Levy, "Hearing loss is the third most common chronic condition among persons age 65 years and older and can lead to increased social isolation, self-denigration, loneliness and depression.

I have some hearing loss. If I have negative and external stereotypes of elderly people, a population that I am joining an a accelerating rate, then my hearing will decline faster. Scary!

Equally scary is the Brafman brothers' expanded application of this research.
Negative and external feelings about old age, in other words, can actually make people physically age faster. And the effect is not limited to hearing alone. Similar studies have found that negative stereotypes about aging contribute to memory loss and cardiovascular weakness, and even reduce overall life expectancy by an average of 7.5 years.

I think I'm going to take a Pollyanna approach. In the novel Pollyanna (which I have never read but do remember from my youth the Disney movie staring Hayley Mills) the author Eleanor H. Potter penned this line: "When you look for the bad in mankind expecting to find it, you surely will." Perhaps we should turn it around and adapt it to read "Look for the good and the beautiful in the elderly expecting to find it and you surely will."

Seriously, I work on my physical health through diet, exercise and stretching. More and more I'm working on attitude, specifically attitudes when encountering people. I'm trying to write stories for them. (ex: "She isn't rude. She's an overworked single mother struggling with stress.") This may not help the other person but it helps me look for the good. I can expand this to see the elderly in the most positive light.

Pollyanna? Let's make that Paulyanna.


Blogger Buffalo said...

I think the much vaunted wisdom that is reputed to come with age is vastly over-rated. At some point we tolerate aging simply because the alternatives aren't viable.

2/09/2011 08:09:00 AM  
Blogger Anvilcloud said...

A very good lesson, Paul. I sometimes think that people either mellow or become more cantankerous as they age.

Perceived wisdom may come from people being more cautious. They also have more life experiences to draw on. This kind of wisdom isn't about getting smarter but being smarter.

I heave a fair amount of hearing loss, but it started young enough that I don't particularly associate it with old age.

2/09/2011 06:00:00 PM  
Blogger Regenia said...

Loved the "Paulyanna"!

On a serious note, let me tell you what I learned when I got my hearing aids.

1)The audiologist said that years ago older people would be considered senile when they actually had hearing loss. I certainly see that.

I couldn't understand things. I would be trying to figure out commercials, or whatever, that made no sense. Come to find out I wasn't hearing well enough so at times I was missing vital parts of a message. I could have been one of those sad cases.

2) She said that if I continued without attempting to do something I would eventually lose my ability to "hear". In other words my brain would be unable to take the sounds received from the ear and interpret them into meaningful language. When the ear fails to take in all the sounds it should the brain receives incomplete "data" to form meaning. If this goes on long enough the brain actually loses the ability to decode sounds into meaning. Once lost, it can not be regained. I LOVE my hearing aids. If you need them, get them!!

About the actual aging process. My mother-in-law entered an assisted living facility years ago. I got to know the director and had several good conversations with her. Her degree was in geriatrics. Anyway, she told me that she could go to the dining room and accurately tell me what any one of the residents was like when much younger. She explained that people do not change when they age unless a physical ailment and/or medications were the cause. Instead whatever a person is/was when young intensifies with age. So the irrascible ones were always like that, just worse with age. The friendly, easy going ones were exactly that when young.

I heard it said another way years later: "What you are in 70's and 80's you are becoming in your
50's and 60's.

2/11/2011 04:12:00 PM  

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