Many adults who are placed into the role of caregiver for an elderly parent or relative find themselves immensely unprepared for their new roles. In my last article, I wrote about the “Shady Acres” myth of an idyllic place that will care for Mom or Dad in their declining golden years. While that falsehood is pervasive, it is far from the only misconception about senior citizens in our society.
Caregiving often starts out with a tremendous lack of knowledge. After all, people don’t know what they don’t know. Since one of the key tasks of my work is to arm caregivers with the information they need to better fulfill their eldercare roles, I would like to dispel the six common myths about the elderly. These myths can be referred to as the “Six S’s About Seniors,” as they each begin with the letter “s.”
Myth No. 1: Sickly
Forget the perception that all old people are aging and bedridden and end up in nursing homes. In our modern age, the elderly are living longer and healthier lives. Studies at Boston Medical Center found that for those seniors who lived to be 100, more than 40 percent didn’t experience old-age-related illnesses until they reached their 80s. Up until that time, they continued to live independently and enjoy decent—or even good—health. Furthermore, only a small percentage of seniors live in nursing homes. Census data from 2006 revealed that only 7.4 percent of Americans over the age of 75 were living in such facilities.
Myth No. 2: Serene
You may be familiar with the term “the golden years” in reference to post-retirement age. Sadly, such a term does not apply to many seniors. In fact, suicide rates are higher in the aging population than in the populace at large, particularly when it comes to men. Among Americans of all ages, 12.4 per 100,000 take their lives each year, but that number climbs to 14.9 for those over 65. What’s more, elderly white men have the highest suicide rate in the country—29 per 100,000—and that figure increases to more than 47 per 100,000 once they exceed age 85. Although these statistics are already alarming, they may actually be even higher, as many suicides are reported as accidents due to the stigma associated with taking one’s own life.
As may be suspected, depression is behind many of these suicides, and a lot of older people have problems asking for help. Depression can also involve different symptoms in seniors, most noticeably a loss of interest in activities they previously enjoyed, a condition called anhedonia. In addition, men tend to be good at masking their feelings because they have been conditioned to believe it’s not OK to express emotional pain, which makes it harder for anyone to intervene. Besides mental illness, other risk factors for late-life suicide include physical illness, the inability to function in daily life, fear of becoming a burden and social disconnection.
Myth No. 3: Senile
It’s commonly believed that a lot of elderly people develop dementia, which may also be referred to as “going senile.” However, only 8% of those over 65 will experience any form of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. Even though the numbers are lower than what many expect, it’s still important to be aware of cognitive changes that could signal dementia, including memory lapses, forgetting how to perform basic life tasks, using common terms incorrectly, and loss of orientation in one’s home or neighborhood. Behavioral changes can also indicate the onset of dementia, so be on the lookout for rapid mood swings, personality changes and marked shifts in energy levels.
Myth No. 4: Sexless
Despite what conventional wisdom may have us believe, research has found that sexual activity and enjoyment do not decrease with age. Indiana University’s Center for Sexual Health Promotion found that over 40% of men and over 30% of women beyond age 70 still engage in sexual activity. Additionally, the National Commission on Aging (NCOA) found that sex for those over 70 is at least as satisfying as it was in their 40s.
Such facts may come as a surprise to adult children, however. As one blogger on certifiedcare.org noted: “Some adult caregivers are shocked when a seventy-five-year-old parent who’s lost a spouse starts serious dating.” It’s helpful to be aware that sex is still a priority for many older people and can remain an important factor in their happiness and life satisfaction.
Myth No. 5: Surly
A commonly held belief is that all old people are surly, irritable and cranky. As people age, they often experience more of the aches, hassles and challenges that would frustrate virtually anyone. Generally, however, if people got along well with others when they were young, they will do the same when they are older. But those who were difficult to get along with when they were young generally remain difficult to get along with as they age.
Myth No. 6: Strapped
We often think of senior citizens as people who need to pinch their pennies and get by on a fixed income, but that is often not the case. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only about 9 percent of Americans 65 or older have incomes and assets that fall below the poverty line. In fact, older adults tend to be better about saving money and practicing careful spending. The problems with being financially strapped more often develop when others, such as the adult children of the elderly, gain control of their money. In future articles, I will offer advice on how to identify and protect against elder financial abuse.
Even though most of the myths that have been perpetuated about the elderly in our society are untrue, it’s also foolhardy to believe that all seniors will be able to take care of themselves until they die. In truth, the majority of them will need the help of a caregiver or caretaker at some point, which usually ends up being a child or a spouse. For those people, the old adage “forewarned is forearmed” applies.
As an eldercare advocate, my mission is to educate those involved in caring for seniors and provide the vital information they need to make informed decisions. Dispelling common myths about the elderly is just one step in this process, but it’s an important part of the straight-talk philosophy that I apply to my work as an eldercare advocate.