Cues create stereotypes of aging

Re article in today’s NYT: What if Age Is Nothing But A Mindset.

In the paper issue of the NYT, a teaser subhead asks,”How far can positive thinking take us?”


Ellen Langer’s research is not related to positive thinking or even mindset. She creates interventions (scientists refer to “manipulations,” a word with neutral or even positive connotations in social science).

Langer just compares the results of those who experienced the intervention with those who did not. The people in the study were not asked to imagine or think anything; they just experienced.

Langer’s studies consistently suggest that these interventions are successful, but it’s another step to suggest that we can create our own intervention by mental gymnastics. That’s another research agenda.

What these results DO show is that people respond to environmental cues in ways that deserve further exploration.

This finding is important because people over 60 or 65 are exposed to negative cues every single day, even if they’re healthy and fit, simply by reactions of people they deal with. Doctors and most medical professions stereotype by age: in fact, many just use the age number to make recommendations, without considering the whole person and the context. (Just google “doctors stereotype aging patients” if you don’t believe me.)

Some young women in my gym have come up to say something like, “It’s nice to see someone your age…” or even the more subtle, “Did you enjoy this class?” – a question that the 20-somethings wouldn’t be asked. Even if the questioners mean well, I’m jolted out of my zone, where I’m just another person taking class, and reminded once again that I’m supposed to be “old.”

It’s always tempting to punch those people in the nose, thus demonstrating my lack of frailty. But I prefer to shock them with recommendations like, “Just stop going to doctors and you’ll age well, too.”

Stigmatizing “seniors” and singles in one sentence

In an article about seniors who show up malnourished in emergency rooms, NYT author Judith Graham suggests social isolation might be a factor.

“Who likes to eat alone?” she asks rhetorically.

More and more of us live in one-person households by choice. Some people like to eat alone and it’s time everyone realized that’s a perfectly appropriate choice to make.

If a room is filled with noisy conversation I won’t eat, period. Stress isn’t good for digestion and anyway I want to enjoy my food.

When you like living alone (and census data shows more and more of us do), you obviously like eating alone. We don’t need stigmatizing comments or rhetorical questions with an agenda.

Why do we make fun of getting old?

Cartoon circling around Facebook, suggesting that people get all saggy and baggy as they age.

First of all, a lot of the time you can prevent sags and bags with exercise, if you start early enough.

And second, there’s not much you can do about sagging and bagging, in some cases. It goes with the territory. Even if you’re totally fit your skin won’t hang the same way as you age.

We don’t make fun of disabled people. Why is this funny?

Is your health care ageist?

Mark Lachs is one of the few doctors to acknowledge that doctors are ageist. As he says, who gets more attention: a 22-year-old model or a 52-year-old executive?

As he says, there’s a huge variance in age groups.

“We geriatricians have a saying: ‘If you’ve seen one 80-year-old, then you’ve seen one 80-year-old.’ That’s also true of us at 50, 60 and 70. I have 60-year-old patients who are home-bound and others who can whip me in a set of tennis. Why would I assume they would all want or need the same type of care?”

Original article here.

An n of 1: “This is what aging is like …”

I get so tired of those polyannas who keep urging older people to have a good attitude and live an active lifestyle.  You can’t be vibrant and active if you go blind in your later years or if you’re physically unable to get around. It’s not always about attitude. We need to have more autonomy to decide when it’s time to end a meaningless life. See the book

What Makes Olga Run?: The Mystery of the 90-Something Track Star and What She Can Teach Us About Living Longer, Happier Lives 

The author studied  90-plus woman who runs marathons, trying to decide what keeps her going. Despite the title, Olga’s success is based on idiosyncratic factors and has no lessons for the rest of us. She’s an outlier.  

These posts shows that people have very different experiences and to draw conclusions based on limited experience. If you’ve known a vibrant 90-year-old who runs marathons and has a great attitude, you can conclude that it’s all a matter of attitude. If you meet someone who’s miserable and wants to die, you conclude that they’ve got a bad attitude. In fact, someone who’s enjoying life might have a positive attitude **because** she’s healthy and strong and capable of running those marathons; someone might seem to have a negative attitude when in fact there’s no cure for a debilitating, painful condition and/or because they lose everything that’s meaningful.
If you know someone in a “good” nursing home, who has the temperament to handle institutional living, and who has visitors who can come every day, you may not understand why someone else can’t tolerate a nursing home, when in fact the second may be a place with bad food, forced room-sharing, indifferent care and being tied to  chair in front of a television all day. 

What everyone should get at age 70: 

(1) Your own personal cyanide pill. At this point modern medicine can only do so much for you. If you want to check out, you should be able to do so, on your own terms, without explaining to anyone.

(2) The right to use 4-letter words, including the F-bomb, any time, especially when you’re talking to a doctor, an insurance company, or some broker who cold-called you to transfer your IRA to his company. You’d be surprised how much gets done after you call somebody a mother-fucking idiot.

(3) The ability to make a citizen’s arrest of anyone who calls you “honey” or “dear,” especially in a professional setting. If they grew up in South Philly, they can plead mitigating circumstances.

(4) The right to knock somebody on their ass if they grab your arm without permission, thinking they’re being kind and helpful, when in fact they’re being patronizing and controlling. Alternatively you can hand them your big heavy backpack and say, “Oh, that’s so nice, dear – how about carrying this for me?” all the way to the door of your gym.

(5) The right to opt out forever from all age-related mailing lists, especially those invitations from AARP and those newsletters from health care agencies.