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No place for aging myths in the 21st century

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Posted: Thursday, October 3, 2013 5:00 pm | Updated: 2:07 pm, Wed Jan 8, 2014.

I’ve always liked the Bette Davis quote: “Old age is no place for sissies.”

But not for the reason you might think.

Davis likely meant you had to be tough to survive the sure decline of being old.

And we continue to believe that to age is to grow more needy, incapable and, finally, stuck in that nursing home we all fear.

Even the information age has not cracked the myth of old age in America.

From where I stand — as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing and a nurse who specializes in care of older people — I see older people today proving that old-age dependency to be a myth, a stereotype tied to mid-20th century thinking.

Getting older is no place for sissies. If you are reading this, the odds are you will live longer, better and accomplish more while doing so than any generation before you.

So let’s crush those myths.

Myth: Older people don’t connect online

This summer, I taught a MOOC — massive open online course — on Coursera (www.coursera.org), being old and living in an aging world, with a colleague, Anne Shoemaker.

“Growing Old Around the Globe” came into being in June. Old Globe, as we called it, consumed my life for seven weeks — maybe you caught some of it? About 6,000 people around the world did. And I learned a lot from them and from the experience of teaching Old Globe. I learned many myths about old age are alive and well.

More importantly, I learned you can take such myths and stereotypes of old age like this one of decline and dependence apart by using the Internet — through a MOOC, in my case — and reaching people from everywhere and at every age.

Anne and I entered the world of online education thinking Old Globe would attract mostly middle-aged folks like me who are thinking about later life. So much for that. Our students ranged from 11 to well over 80.

Senior Man sitting on Lawn Chair Using Laptop
Senior Man sitting on Lawn Chair Using Laptop, elevated view portrait. Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/67835627@N05/

I never imagined Old Globe would draw four or more generations from all around the world for a conversation on aging and being old.

And once deep into conversation, we took apart the myth that older folks aren’t using computers and the Internet just by launching this MOOC and seeing who signed up.

Myth: Getting older means losing independence.

Crushing the myth of certain old-age dependency took more time. The idea of being old as a dismal prospect popped up in course discussions, both online and in our webcasts.

Anne and I took some criticism for being too sweet and positive in how and what we taught about our aging world. We kept coming back to the statistics and the evidence about being old in America and other places around the globe.

The numbers and science just don’t support the myth that old age holds nothing but misery.

Here are some ideas for you to consider.

First, life expectancy in America is about a decade better than it was in the middle of the 20th century. That’s 78.7 years at birth on average now — 76.2 years for men and 81 years for women. What’s more exciting is if you reach 65, you can expect to live another 19 years. And if you are 75? Another 12 years after that. You might say living long is not living well. True enough.

So as a second point, let’s look at the most extreme version of this myth: We will all end up living out our lives in nursing homes. That is, unless we are lucky enough to have family to care for us as we end our lives needing constant care and supervision. I’m a nurse — I know all too well that life in a nursing home is possible. It is just not very likely.

For the past 30 years, the statistics have remained roughly constant. In America, only about 5 percent of people older than 65 live in nursing homes. And that figure has been going down, even for those over 85, the most likely to live in a nursing home.

Senior Couple in Hot Tub
Senior Couple in Hot Tub Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/67835627@N05/

Third, few of us over age 65 who don’t live in nursing homes need help with personal care. In truth, only about 7 percent actually do need help bathing, dressing or doing the things we take for granted each day.

I get it that many of you reading this who do need help or who help a relative or friend might disagree. Needing help often is all-consuming. I am a nurse for just that reason — to help and support those older people and their families in need.

That is why I step back and look at the big picture. The odds of being dependent as you reach old age are not such that all of us can expect to need so much more than we give.

Myth: Older people lead boring lives.

Look at your life and at others’ lives. I often use this little test: Who is the oldest person by birthday you know well? Have that person in mind? Now, think about that person and what she or he does every day. Chances are that person is busy living life — maybe busier than you are — and plays a big role in your life and those of others, too.

Linda Carson and friend in Guilin, China
Guilin (Chinese: 桂林; Zhuang: Gveilinz) is a prefecture-level city in the northeast of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, People's Republic of China, situated on the west bank of the Li River, and bordering Hunan to the north. Its name means "forest of Sweet Osmanthus", owing to the large number of fragrant Sweet Osmanthus trees located in the city. The city has long been renowned for its unique scenery of Karst topography and is one of China's most popular tourist destinations.

The reaction to the questions usually is silence. Then someone starts talking and others follow. These stories are marvelous, especially when told by young people who are lucky enough to be born in a time in which long lives are likely.

And other than a long-ago birth date, the stories are rarely the same: Parenting turned to child care and essential family support; current jobs and long careers; hard work and painful disappointment; real lives and real role models.

Yes, there are stories of illness and death, though most begin with “We lost the person I loved …” and go on to tell tales of lives long and well lived.

Happy senior citizens at a party (2012).jpg
Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/alma_philippinesimages/

Teaching at Old Globe has made me more mindful of the need to combat the myths of aging. From “older people don’t use computers” to “being old means being feeble and needy” — it’s time to start changing the conversation, using facts and experience to take apart the myth.

Each month in this column, I want to offer you some information and ideas about topics important to us all as we age. I’d love to hear your thoughts — email me at mythsofaging@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @SarahHKagan. If you’d like to learn more about the Growing Old Around the Globe Community, we are still live on Twitter @OldGlobeMOOC and on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/oldglobecoursera.

Dr. Sarah Kagan.png
Dr. Sarah Kagan is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing where she specializes in geriatric issues and the care of older people. She is a visiting scholar at universities around the world and was awarded the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship for her work. Her column on aging myths appears in newspapers and on digital sites throughout Calkins Media.

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