Are Ageist Stereotypes Affecting Your View Of Your Aging Parents?

Our society seems to have a widespread ageist attitude about older adults. In the media, elders are shown receiving help, taking medications, being infirm, and less capable in many ways because of age. It is inescapable that these images shape our own attitudes.

Stereotypes cause us to think of people in groups as being all the same or similar. For example, “teenagers are irresponsible”, or a certain ethnic group is “lazy” and “old people are out of it”. These pervasive beliefs lead to what we do in response to someone we stereotype. No one wants to be on the receiving end of this kind of thinking, as it is often totally unfair, but stereotypes about aging persist.

In our own families, we may believe that our aging loved ones are not able to do things, understand things, or be productive just because we see them as “old”. But when are we “old”? Is it when we retire? Is it when we have grey hair? Or is it when we see ourselves that way?

Our government defines elders as people 65 and up. It defines people 85 and up as “the oldest old”. Special protective laws for elders are in place because it is true that frailties associated with aging do make elders more vulnerable in some ways. But do those assumptions always apply? Most of us can name an older person we know or have met who is sharp, active and does not fit the stereotype of frailty.

The Harm of Stereotypical Thinking

Here is where stereotypical thinking affects families and causes conflicts we see at Some adult children incorrectly assume that their aging parent is not capable of making reasonable decisions about where they want to live, or whom they want to be in charge of their money or health care.

Accurately identified memory loss or dementia in your aging loved one does require that someone else take charge of some things. But, even with cognitive impairment, many elders are still quite capable of making choices about basics like what to wear, what they want to eat and even where they want to receive care they need. This is a very tricky area when the elder has dementia or other cognitive decline. The elder is impaired but perhaps not in every single part of life nor for every possible decision.

The Move From Home To A Care Facility

Some families move rapidly or rashly to put an elder into a place where care is available as soon as they learn of a diagnosis like dementia. Moving to a supervised environment makes perfect sense for this person. But can’t the aging parent be involved in the decision-making process? I suggest that when an aging loved one needs to move out of one’s home and be in a supervised environment, that the elder is offered at least some choice in the matter. I suggest one not argue with an aging parent who says “I don’t want to move, and leave me alone.” Rather, it can be that family says, “the doctor recommends getting some help where you live and we want to show you the two (or however many choices you pick for them) places we think will work.” Ask for their opinion. Ask what they would like to see.

Voicing your respect for their thoughts is important even if they have significant memory loss. When an elder must move from home, it can feel like a blow if they have no say. Whether they object or not, it is helpful to invite their input and hear them out. Family may not go along with their ideas if they are not safe ideas but it is nonetheless important for the elder to be heard. Your willingness to listen is crucial for you to demonstrate your respect. When a person of any age feels heard, it has a tendency to reduce conflict. As we at work with elders and their families, we see repeated fights going on when the aging parent is commanded to do things they don’t want to do and no one asks them about any preferences they have. If you want to avoid those nasty battles, give listening a try.

Changing Our Unconscious Biases

Images of what it means to be “old” are typically negative. That’s ingrained in us in American society. We can consciously change our assumptions about aging to focus more on what is still intact in your elder. Let aging parents make some decisions whenever possible, even in the midst of cognitive decline and frailty. If you put yourself in their shoes, you may see that the right to make some very basic choices is not age-dependent. Bear in mind that when they complain that your are controlling them, you can simply acknowledge that it must be difficult for them to have you telling them how it’s going to be, but you want them to have choices about some things as much as possible. No need to argue that you’re doing it for their own good, etc. That’s too logical to work with the emotion they may be feeling about losing control over their lives.

The Takeaways

  1. Clearly not everyone ages in a predictable way. Even impaired elders deserve to have their thoughts heard. It is unfair to them to assume that they can’t think straight about any basic decisions at all.
  2. Ageist thinking is inescapable in our society. We may unconsciously incorporate it into what we do by making assumptions about aging parents without asking for their input. We don’t necessarily have to follow everything they want. But we can at least offer them the full opportunity to say what they want and what they think about important decisions.

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