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Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Challenging the definition of ageing

If someone were to ask you to describe being old, it's doubtful that the words athletic, cool and beautiful would top your list. And you wouldn’t be alone; in our Western, youth-obsessed culture, ageing is inevitable but seldom enviable.

One of the 28 definitions for “old” describes it as a later stage in life, where overall health is deteriorating. But for Dr. Christine Weber, a New York-based Clinical Neuropsychologist, this is only partly true. For her, the definition of “old” is highly subjective and based on several external factors, namely media influence, increased longevity and childhood experiences.

An age of media

For many, the thought of ageing conjures up images of grandparents, mobility devices and retirement. Even the word retirement negative connotations, bringing up images of withdrawing from adult society.  But this may not be entirely our fault.

We are quite literally bombarded by ideas, products and services which promote memory retention, assisted living and healthier colons; all of these speak to the general state of helplessness associated with elderly life.

Dr. Weber tells gbtimes that “the media's portrayal of older individuals is often negative and unrealistic”. This, she says, has lead to a general stereotyping of the elderly as “irritable, stubborn, inappropriate and out of touch.”

These generalisations are evident in almost all forms of media and entertainment. “Magazines [...] display attractive young men and women on their covers, [and] characters on television are primarily portrayed by younger people,” Dr. Weber points out.

As if to underline Dr. Weber's point, Angela Rasbeary, a 45-year-old Facebook user from Costa Rica, told gbtimes that she had recently asked her 7-year-old son where he could expect to find senior citizens. To her astonishment, he replied, “In a (retirement) home or a hospital.”

Sadly, it is because of these perceptions that the elderly are often overlooked, or even discriminated against.

Age against the machine

For better or worse, we live in an age of immediacy. With oceans of information at their fingertips, today’s youth have replaced Grandpa's wisdom with Google's algorithms. They want it all, and they want it now.

Much of the reason for this, says Dr. Weber, is because society places such a high premium on the younger generations. “Youth is rewarded and lauded in modern culture,” she says.

Perhaps this would explain the incredible growth of the cosmetic surgery industry, which has seen a 600% increase in the US since 1997. According to Dr. Weber, facelifts are “the most common surgical procedure” for both women and an increasing number of men.

For 69-year old Veda Duncan, a retired worker from Frito-Lay Incorporated who has undergone some minor procedures, cosmetic intervention is more about self-perception than public opinion. “The mirror doesn’t lie,” she told gbtimes, “and when I look younger, I feel younger.”

And while time may wait for no man, it certainly seems to have slowed down a bit; most people are living longer, healthier lives than ever before. According to Dr. Weber, this is why “the perception of being old may be different from actually being old”; the statistics on ageing are constantly in flux.

Mind over matter

In 2010, a European Social Survey was conducted. It asked: when does youth end and old age begin? The results found that the younger the respondent, the earlier the age they considered to be the cutoff. The people running the survey concluded that age, much like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

This point strikes close to home with 38-year-old Elizabeth Caroll, a registered nurse based in Ohio. She tells us that when asked if old people are beautiful, her 11-year-old daughter Andrea replied, “Of course you are”.

Answers such as these will come as no surprise to Dr. Weber, who says that we first develop a concept of when 'old age' begins in childhood. Interestingly, these early perceptions also set the stage for our physical health later in life.

“When negative qualities are attributed to being old, this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Dr. Weber. “We envision what may occur in the future, and behave in a way that either directly or indirectly causes our predictions to come true.”

So if we associate being elderly with being in poor health, the chances are greater that we will develop an illness, disease or malady. Perhaps RenĂ© Descartes wasn’t too far off the mark in 1637 when he pondered, “I think, therefore I am.”

Ultimately, our war against time is an exercise in futility. No matter how hard we try, life and gravity continue unabated and a “...for your age” will eventually be appended to “You look great”.

And when you eventually lose sight of the man in the mirror and find something different gazing back at you than what you think should be there, relish the thought that the stranger is gazing back at you may only be in your mind.

This article is part of our special report on the elderly. With the UN's International Day of Older Persons 2015 (October 1) focusing on age inclusiveness in cities, gbtimes explores the current challenges, care, respect and possibilities for pensioners around the world, as well as what lies ahead. Join the discussion in the comments below or on social media, and return to our website for more from our elderly special report.

Source: http://gbtimes.com/life/challenging-definition-ageing 

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