Seniors Are Alive and Well: Laying the Ageist Myths to Rest

two active seniors on hike defying ageist falsehoods

Almost as regretful as the recent death of the beloved entertainer Betty White was the fact that the active, whip-sharp senior was less than a month shy of her 100th birthday, an event she and her fans were excited to celebrate in grand style.

It is also an event that would have been unheard of 100 years ago.

The statistics on life expectancy today are staggering. Consider this:

  • One in four 65-year-olds today will live past the age of 90, and one in ten will live past 95.
  • The life expectancy for men today is 84.3 years; for women, it is 86.6 years.
  • 100 years ago, the average life expectancy was about 50 years old.
  • The number of Americans over the age of 85 is rising faster than any other age group.
  • The number of Americans 65 and older is projected to double by 2060, totaling 98 million.
  • As of this writing, the oldest person alive is 119, a woman named Kane Tanaka who has lived through over a century of history’s momentous events, including the Spanish Flu – the last global pandemic before Covid-19.

Key factors that contribute to increased life expectancy are better health care, improved hygiene, greater emphasis on a healthy lifestyle, adequate nutritious food, better medical care, and reduced child mortality.

Yet, even as people are living significantly longer than ever before, many of the age-old and ageist stereotypes about senior citizens are still alive and kicking. Let’s look at – and bust – some of the most common myths attributed to older age. (We might also look at Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Samuel L. Jackson, Cher, Jimmy Buffet, Jane Fonda, and Robert DeNiro, to name just a few popular icons defying ageist stereotypes.)

Debunking 10 Myths About Senior Citizens

Myth #1

Seniors can’t learn new skills. While it may take a little longer for seniors to learn a new skill than their younger counterparts, most age-associated cognitive changes are mild and do not affect daily functioning or the ability to acquire new skills. In fact, many seniors outperform younger people on intelligence tests that draw upon accumulated wisdom and knowledge. Experts suggest that more than simply maintaining cognitive function, seniors should be growing their bank of knowledge. One study found that learning new skills in an encouraging environment expands cognitive ability for seniors just as it does for children.

Myth #2

Nothing can be done to reduce the risk of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. According to the Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation, one in three dementia cases is preventable. Several avoidable factors contribute to the risk of developing dementia or Alzheimers’, including inactivity, diabetes, smoking, obesity, hypertension, depression, and social isolation. Staying mentally and physically active and eating a healthy, balanced diet are positive behaviors that can stave off the not necessarily inevitable.  

Myth #3

Most seniors are weak and frail and shouldn’t exercise to avoid injury. Evidence suggesting that senior bodies must be in motion to stay in motion is limitless. Even light exercise every day or several times a week is crucial to maintaining strength, balance, flexibility, muscle and bone health, and overall fitness. The fear of injury, particularly falling, is paradoxically counterproductive to injury prevention – often, the shuffling and other bodily adjustments made to avoid falling, along with eyes on the ground instead of on one’s surroundings, can often cause the mishaps so many seniors dread.

Myth #4

Most seniors are bound for a nursing home. According to the National Institutes of Health, just under 5% of older Americans live in a nursing home and only 2% reside in an assisted living facility. Yet, as anyone who has ever visited a modern senior living community is aware, these residences are nothing like the sterile, hospital-like settings of yore. In fact, many healthy seniors choose to move into retirement communities for the convenience, luxury accommodations, social stimulation, fine cuisine, continuing levels of care, and more. The operative word is choose – the vast majority of seniors today determine where and how they live.

Myth #5

Seniors are often depressed, grumpy and isolated. The basic human need for joyful experiences and meaningful social relationships never ends, particularly in old age when maintaining social connections can become more difficult. Now is the time many seniors reach out more than ever to meet and bond with others. Whether they choose to move to a senior living community, with built-in opportunities to make new friends and enjoy new activities, or they seek out social experiences in their town or elsewhere, today’s seniors are eager to stay active, upbeat, and in community with others. What’s more, many older adults are unburdened by the worries of the past and more focused on what’s truly important in life. “Be interested, be interesting,” said one wise 87-year-old.

Myth #6

Genetics determine how well you age. It’s understandable to assume that genes control our destiny. But, according to Dr. Roger Landry, author of Live Long, Die Short, 70% of how we age is determined by our lifestyle choices. Eating well, getting adequate sleep, regular exercise, not smoking or abusing drugs, limiting alcohol consumption…all these and more healthy habits play a greater role in how we age than our DNA.

Myth #7

Seniors don’t have sex anymore. A study out of the University of Michigan found that 65% of respondents aged 50-80 were still interested in physical intimacy. Seventy-six percent agreed that sex is an important part of a romantic relationship, and 40% replied that they were still sexually active.

Myth #8

Most seniors have trouble hearing or seeing, or both. Barclay Friends has recently blogged about hearing loss and reduced vision among seniors. While the risk for both increases with age (approximately one in three seniors has some degree of impaired hearing and/or vision), there are preventive measures that can be taken to forestall significant hearing or vision loss as well as several devices and tactics to mitigate the effects of both in the elderly. Popular culture’s portrayal of older people hobbling around half blind or deaf is not only unkind, but also grossly inaccurate.

Myth #9

Seniors should give up driving. This myth buster comes with a word of warning: if you or a loved one’s hearing, vision or overall health is compromised such that operating a vehicle is no longer safe, driving should not continue until or unless it is approved by a qualified medical professional and motor vehicle agent. That said, many older adults are in fine health to drive (one in six drivers is aged 65 or above), and doing so may be the best way for them to stay active, mobile and engaged. Great care and great reason should be taken in suggesting that a senior stop driving. Click here for tips on talking to older loved ones about driving.

Myth #10

All seniors talk about is their ailments. In a 2017 National Health Interview survey, 84% of people aged 65-74 reported being in excellent, very good, or good overall health. Older people have some of the best outlooks on aging. For example, says Jimmy Buffet, “Wrinkles will only go where the smiles have been.” According to the late David Bowie, “Aging is an extraordinary process where you become the person you always should have been.” Perhaps George Burns, who lived to be 100, said it best: “You can’t help getting older, but you don’t have to get old.”

Just as more and more people are living into advanced age, perhaps the day will soon come when the falsehoods about senior citizens are a thing of the past. Certainly, continued focus on regular exercise, proper nutrition and sleep, lifelong learning, meaningful social interactions, attention to hearing, vision and overall health and wellbeing, and the sheer joy of being alive in a time when a 100th birthday is all the more possible will go a long way toward shifting views on aging – for everyone.

Looking for a senior living community?

Barclay Friends offers a full continuum of care.