Okay, SuzyR and Cathy, you are IT today. I don’t mean to pick on you specifically, but something you each said in your comments on yesterday’s post needs to be addressed because it is a widely-held myth that must be debunked and defeated if ageism in general is ever going to end.
Here is the part of what SuzyR wrote I’m talking about:
”We do tend to entrench in our outlook as we get older…”
And here is Cathy’s:
”I have come to believe that people cannot change their natures.
Maybe I am mistaken, but if by “nature,” Cathy also means people can’t change in old age, the answer is no, no and no. This is one of the biggest misconceptions about old people.
However the idea is worded – set or stuck in their ways, cannot adapt to change, can’t teach an old dog new tricks – it is simply wrong. Yet SuzyR and Cathy are hardly alone; it is believed by large numbers of people. A few examples:
From a website about eldercare.
“Many seniors become more stuck in their ways with every passing year.”
From a commercial website for hiring caregivers.
“It can be hard watching your parents age. All the times they were there for you when you had a cold or were hungry, and now they forget things and become more stuck in their ways.”
From a website in support of presidential candidate Ron Paul written by a reader who, a couple of weeks ago, had just attended a Utah caucus:
“The older generations are much more likely to cling to the familiar, are stuck in their ways, and are afraid of change.”
But none of that is true. Old people adapt to all kinds of changes, big ones too, every day: retirement, death of a spouse, reduced income, serious illness, moving to a smaller home, etc.
One of our own elderbloggers, Darlene Costner who is well into her ninth decade, left an eloquent note on yesterday’s post about the changes she has lived with as she has grown old.
It is not just life-changing events and physical circumstances that elders navigate quite well. Attitudes and beliefs change too. One project analyzed data from the U.S. General Social Surveys of 46,510 Americans between 1972 and 2004:
”The surveys assessed attitudes on politics, economics, race, gender, religion and sexuality issues. In some cases, such as racial issues and questions of civil liberties for communists, the researchers measured a greater change toward liberalism in older people than in younger people.”
Why then do so many people believe elders become more conservative in old age? One of the researchers answered:
”People might find an average 60-year-old to be more conservative than an average 30-year-old, Danigelis said, but beware of extrapolating a trend. The older person, for example, might have started off even more conservative than he or she is now.
“Danigelis also blamed the misconception on pervasive negative attitudes toward the elderly in our country, and stereotypes that depict seniors as rigid, ornery and set in their ways.”
Elders’ adaptability is not a revelation. It has a been well known to psychologists, geriatricians, gerontologists, etc. since at least the mid-20th century but some people – including a large swath of the general public – haven’t heard and researchers continue their work to understand how the elder mind operates. A just-released, new study from the University of Illinois
“…shows that improving cognitive functioning in seniors actually changes an aspect of their personality, namely openness to experience…
“’The common assumption about personality is that it is hard-wired and won’t change, but this study contradicts that quite strongly,’ said Brent Roberts, professor in the department of psychology at the University of Illnois at Urbana-Champaign and co-author of study.”
The perpetuation of this myth is always damaging to elders. There are others, but one serious consequence is that doctors, nurses, adult children and caregivers of all kinds who believe you can’t teach an old dog new tricks will not help an elder learn what is necessary, for example, to monitor diabetes (or any other condition) that affects their health.
By the way and just for fun, the TV Mythbusters guys once tested the literal truth of the old dogs/new tricks adage by attempting to teach two seven-year-old malamutes who knew between them not a single dog trick:
”After four days of training, Bobo and Cece proved Fitzherbert flat wrong. Each could heel, sit, lie down, stay and shake upon command from Jamie and Adam. And since malamutes are known to be stubborn, Bobo and Cece’s stellar performances definitively busted the myth and represented for old dogs everywhere.”
My favorite refutation of the myth, however, is found in a New York Times story from last fall about a country mouse and city mouse who each said they were set in their ways. But the story of their late-life marriage is entirely about change and adapting.
“He is economical with his words; she is ebullient. He reads newspapers in the morning; she peruses the Internet. The country house (his) has no TV set; the city apartment (hers) plays the TV news nonstop. And where her idea of preparing a meal typically involved a microwave exclusively, he is strictly a conventional-oven man.
“Yet the inevitable has happened. He is trying to sleep in the city despite the noise. She has become a consummate cook, whipping up bouillabaisse for him, and entertaining his five siblings and numerous cousins, many of whom visit frequently…”
SuzyR and Cathy: I hope you will forgive me for singling out your comments but they were an almost perfect teaching moment about this misconception and I appreciate the opportunity.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Barbara Sloan: Modern Technology in Elder Land