National Care Planning Council
National Care Planning Council

Senior Services
from our Members

Books for Care Planning

    Long Term Care BooksFind books provided by the National Care Planning Council written to help the public plan for Long Term Care. Learn More...

Eldercare Articles

    Eldercare ArticlesThe NCPC publishes periodic articles under the title "Planning for Eldercare". Each article is written to help families recognize the need for long term care planning and to help implement that planning. All elderly people, regardless of current health, should have a long term care plan. Learn More...

Join the NCPC

Guide to LTC Planning

    Guide to Long Term Care PlanningFrom its inception, the goal of the National Care Planning Council has been to educate the public on the importance of planning for long term care. With that goal in mind, we have created the largest and most comprehensive source of long term care planning material available anywhere. This material -- "Guide to Long Term Care Planning" -- is free to the public for downloading and printing on all of our web sites. Learn More...

Understanding American Attitudes Towards Aging

American Attitudes Towards Aging

Ageism in American Society

American society in general glorifies youth and fears or even despises old age. This is not the case in many other societies where age is associated with wisdom, knowledge, and special status. We see evidence of this bias towards older Americans especially in the media. In films and on TV old people are very often depicted as weak, indecisive, bumbling or even comic. We laugh at their misdeeds and forgive their mistakes knowing in the back of our minds that they are old and can't help themselves. We view them not as capable as younger people. It is rarely that we see older people depicted as decisive, strong or as leaders. We see this same attitude with large corporations and government employers. At a certain age, employees are encouraged or expected to "retire" to a new phase of their lives where they are not required to work for a living any longer. Retirement is presumably a reward for many years of dedication and hard work, but the underlying philosophy is more likely based on the idea that older workers are no longer productive or useful.

As Americans age, we fear the deterioration of our bodies and the possible lack of security due to low income – a byproduct of old-age. Some people in our country fight old age through cosmetic surgery, use of supplements, aggressive weight-loss programs or through overzealous physical training programs. Other people accept old age gracefully and adapt as well as they can. Still others refuse to grow old and resist aging by adopting social strategies such as denial, refusal to participate in life or becoming belligerent.

Instead of taking the role as leaders in their families or in the community as is the case in some countries, the elderly in our country, even after successful careers in earlier years, simply become invisible. They waste their prodigious talents traveling, entertaining, socializing, watching TV or playing golf. They are rarely asked to assume responsible roles in the community. And unlike other cultures, older Americans often abandon themselves to control by other people, often their children and their health care providers. Instead of taking responsibility for their own decisions, they will rely on children or others to make decisions for them. Many of them seem to enjoy the role of becoming dependent on others. And it is all too often the case that family and others pander to this submissive role of the elderly, and we begin treating them like children.

This generally accepted perception of aging in our country has resulted in the elderly themselves and in the community at large regarding older people as less valuable than younger people. The assumption is that the elderly have lost the ability to think clearly, to learn new things and they are generally incapable of any physical activity other than walking or sitting. This attitude also carries over into the health treatment that older Americans receive.

The Older Person's Attitude towards His or Her Own Health

Many elderly people buy into the notion that they themselves are no longer useful and as a result make little attempt to keep themselves healthy and active. After all, they are getting closer to the end of their lives and have no desire to try new things or to challenge themselves or to eat or exercise properly.

There is a great deal of anecdotal and research evidence that demonstrates older people can learn, can retain memory, and can be actively involved in business and in the community. The lack of physical exercise, social involvement and mental stimulation in older Americans often leads to these people losing the ability to use their minds and their bodies. The older person's negative attitude towards aging becomes self-fulfilling.

Many reason that they have missed their opportunities in life when they were younger and it's too late to start over. As a result, many older people are intimidated by new ideas or by technology such as computers, not because they are incapable but simply because of their attitude. The idea of not being able to "teach an old dog new tricks" is in most cases an excuse. Obviously, this mindset of failure and inability to perform becomes self-fulfilling. Not surprisingly, depression and suicide are more common in the elderly than in the younger population.

The negative attitude towards aging on the part of an older person has a direct impact on that person's health. Many studies show that people who are physically active have less joint pain, lower blood pressure, less depression, fewer heart attacks and a lower incidence of cancer. Proper nutrition also has the same effect on the aging process; it delays the onset of debilitating illness or disability.

According to James S. Marks, M.D., M.P.H., Director of the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion ".... Research has shown that poor health does not have to be an inevitable consequence of growing older. Death is inevitable, but, for many people, it need not be preceded by a slow, painful, and disability- ridden decline. Our nation will continue to age -- that we cannot change -- but we can delay and, in many cases, prevent illness and disability."

A study from the Journal of the American Geriatric Society reports that inactive women at age 65 have a life expectancy of 12.7 years whereas highly active, non-smoking women at 65 have a life expectancy of 18.4 years.

A report from the CDC indicates that very few older Americans get 30 minutes or more exercise for five days a week or more. The report states that up to 34% of adults aged 65 to 74 are inactive and up to 44% or almost half of adults age 75 are inactive.

A study From the US Preventative Services Task Force reveals that regular exercise can reduce life-threatening falls in the elderly by 58%. Another study showed that regular exercise reduced pain and increased function in joints of older Americans suffering from osteoarthritis.

Yet another study found that strength training was as effective as medication in reducing depressive symptoms in older adults. Other studies from the Department of Health and Human Services support the idea that older people who are responsible for their own health and their own health decisions are healthier than people who rely on others to make decisions for them. Lack of activity and poor nutrition often lead to obesity.

More than any other problem facing older people, obesity can have the worst effect on their health. It leads to joint degeneration, heart problems, stroke, congestive heart failure, diabetes, and a whole raft of other chronic medical conditions. And obesity among all ages is becoming a national crisis.

Another health problem with the elderly is the overuse of alcohol, cigarettes, and addictive medicines such as pain killers or tranquilizers. It is assumed by the elderly and by their family that long term use of these substances has gotten to a point where it would be pointless or impossible to get the elder person to discontinue or cut back on their use. In other words, older people are no longer useful so let them have their bad ways. "Everyone dies at some point; what does it matter what causes the death."

For instance, it is assumed that smoking has already done its damage and little could be achieved in stopping. Actually, recent evidence indicates that no matter what the age, cessation of smoking can reduce the incidence of chronic lung disorders and improve lung function even after a few weeks.

No one knows the extent of abuse of alcohol or other addictive substances among the elderly simply because no definitive studies have ever been done and older abusers remain hidden and invisible to the public. Again, this is reflective of our society's attitude towards the elderly. It is commonly felt, especially by doctors who prescribe addictive medications, that we should, "Let them have their vices, it gives them comfort and relief from pain, and they are old and are going to die anyway".

Because of this public attitude many elderly people waste the remainder of their lives living in alcohol or drug induced stupor. And their health suffers as well due to lack of activity and poor nutrition.

Given the proper attitude, and assuming that there are no major health problems, aging seniors can remain active and productive in their final years and need not buy into the notion that they are no longer useful.