Most of us are guilty of assigning certain types of people with labels. For example, people who wear glasses are smart, blondes not so much, Asians are cheap but good at maths (perhaps there’s a correlation here), and old people are senile.
Now I’m sure we all know people who are bespectacled, blonde, Asian or “old”, but do not in any way fit into the stereotypes mentioned above.
Stereotypes are harmful because it brings pre-existing perceptions of someone based on their appearance or culture before you meet them. They frame your interactions with them in a way that is biased and ignorant. In fact, stereotyping is a form of bullying.
Here are five common stereotypes of older people that we need to address:
1. Old people are senile.
The word “senile” means having or showing a disease or condition caused by advanced age. However, it has become synonymous with dementia and Alzheimer’s. These diseases are not a natural occurrence of ageing- less than 10% of the population over 65 develop dementia. While we may experience forgetfulness or loss of cognitive function as we age, every person is different with varying levels of senility. The important thing is that it doesn’t affect every single person over 65. I’m certain many of us know an older person who is as sharp as the bristles on a hedgehog (for lack of a better simile).
2. Old people can’t learn new things.
This is outright wrong. Old people can and do learn. Rather, they learn in different ways and at different rates. Older people prefer to learn new skills acquired via personalised engagement strategies as opposed to rote learning at institutions (Adult Learning Australia 2013). Sometimes, the barrier to an older person learning in a public place (e.g. at university) is because of societal perceptions that “an old dog can’t learn new tricks”, which can cause demotivation, self-consciousness and refusal to learn new things. In fact, participation in learning reduces social isolation and increases mental wellbeing.
And older people are constantly learning new things. Retirement and transitioning into a later stage of life requires flexibility, versatility and quick adaptability of new experiences, while tackling the fear of the unknown. E.g. moving out of the family home, making Wills and ensuring affairs are in order, looking after grandchildren, etc.
3. All old people are the same.
That’s like saying every single person is the same. Sure, older people may share similar experiences, but so do high school students. So do women. So do men. So do people. So what? Everyone is unique.
4. We can’t learn anything from old people.
Older people offer fresh perspectives. They’ve been through a lot of life experiences that you and I have yet to conquer. They survived high school and most of their work life without the Internet. In saying that, I daresay they are more in touch with reality than their younger counterparts.
And it’s a mutually beneficial process. Both younger and older people can benefit from each other through communication. Older people will feel less lonely and isolated while younger people will benefit from an older person’s wealth of experience.
5. Old people are lonely.
Ok, this is true to an extent. But not all old people are lonely. They’re just more at risk of loneliness and isolation if they live by themselves. A lot of older people are not abandoned by families (in Chinese culture younger people are expected to respect and look after their elderly parents), engage in recreational activities and have a lot of social interactions with each other.
Yesterday, I was at the UNSW Gym enjoying a bacon and egg roll when a womens’ aqua-aerobics class started. 14 out of the 15 women were at least 60 years old, and they looked like they were having the time of their life, chatting, splashing water at each other or very intently following the instructor’s every move.
So, breaking stereotype number 6: old people have lots of fun!