Busting some common myths about ageing


Often we don’t realise how ingrained some of our beliefs are until we question them, so we’ve examined some of the more commonly held myths, assumptions and stereotypes about ageing. What do you think?

myths oneMyth: Older people are a burden on society

How often these days do we hear the about the burden of our ageing population, the so-called silver tsunami that’s about to descend and play havoc with our economy? In fact, with the wealth of information we now have about how to take care of ourselves physically and mentally as we age, the increasing contribution that active older people will make to society will surely challenge the scare-mongering about being a general drain on the rest of society. There is even good news for the Inland Revenue Department! The number of people over 65 in the workforce continues to increase.

The 2013 New Zealand Census shows 40% of 65 to 69-year-olds, and 21% of 70 to 74-year-olds in full or part-time employment – a significant increase from the 2006 census. And New Zealand continues to have one of the highest employment rates of 65 to 69-year-olds in the OECD. Let’s not forget about those contributions made to society by older people that the economic system does not recognise. At the 2006 Census, 75,600 persons aged 65+ years reported they undertook voluntary work for or through any organisation, group or marae in the four weeks prior to the census – up 17% on the 2001 figure. And that doesn’t take into account the help that people give to their families, such as caring for grandchildren and others in their community.

Myth: The baby boomers are a selfish lot

These so-called young oldies are supposedly either gallivanting around the countryside in their motorhomes, or taking off for regular OE, flashing their Goldcards and spending their kids’ rightful inheritances.

In reality, most baby boomers are the sandwich – some even say a club sandwich – generation. Many provide bed and board for young adult children who are living at home, or they’re assisting them with buying a home, caring for grandchildren, and often caring for their own ageing parents as well.

We’ve found some excellent research papers on this topic at www.nationalseniors.com.au

Myth: You lose your brain cells as you age

Most people don’t experience a significant decline in their mental abilities as they age. There are examples abound of people who have done their best work at a ripe old age – think Michelangelo, artist Grandma Moses, and famous cellist Pablo Casals who at 90 still practiced four or five hours a day. Asked why at his age this was necessary, he responded: “Because I think I am making some progress.”

It’s true there are some differences in learning styles between the age groups. When there’s more in the memory bank, it might take a little longer to retrieve information. But instead of the commonly held belief that we lose brain cells with age, we can, by using our brain well as we get older, actually increase our learning capacity.

Myth: You can’t teach an old dog new tricks

It’s been said that old dogs rarely have difficulty in learning new tricks, they just have to convince themselves that it’s worth the effort! There is overwhelming evidence of the benefits of new learning throughout life, and particularly into older age. These can range from delaying the onset and progression of dementia, to reducing dependency on the public purse, particularly the health system. While there have been savage cuts to continuing education classes in recent times, there are still plenty of options out there (or even on the internet) to learn new stuff for not very much money.

Community newspapers, libraries and your local Citizen’s Advice Bureau are often the best sources for checking out activities such as sports, art, dance, language, yoga, exercise or music classes in your community.

Myth: It’s too late to change the habits of a lifetime

This myth is a close relative of the “old dog” one. Again the amount of evidence available on the benefits in older age of regular exercise, healthy eating, keeping your brain active, and staying connected to other people is almost overwhelming. Despite this, many older adults think it’s too late to adopt a healthy lifestyle, mistakenly believing it’s too late for it to have much benefit. While it is true that we reap the benefits in later life of healthy choices made in our earlier years, the old adage “better late than never” still applies.

Exercise, even for those of advanced years, has many benefits, including increased muscle strength and improved mobility. It can also help reduce the pain of arthritis. So even if you’ve never exercised a day in your life, it’s not too late to get off the couch. Check with your doctor first, start slowly and aim for a mixture of low impact aerobic, resistance, balance and flexibility exercises. We’ve found some good ideas on what’s needed to stay healthy as we age from the Ministry of Health.

myths twoMyth: Forgetfulness is a sign of Alzheimer’s disease

It’s normal to have memory lapses as we age. Forgetting the name of a person we’ve only just met, or not being able to think of a word right away are annoying, but this doesn’t mean we’re losing it. However, forgetfulness may be an early sign of dementia and any significant memory loss should be checked out byyour doctor. There are a number of conditions where memory loss is a factor. For example, memory can be affected by medications or depression. Although the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease in New Zealand is currently 1.1% of the population, it is expected to rise with an ageing longer-living population.

There are myths about Alzheimer’s too, read about them on the Alzheimer’s Association website.

Myth: You’ll stop having sex

It can’t be denied that ageing does bring some physical and psychological changes that can affect your ability and desire to have sex. Most people experience reduced levels of the sex drive hormone testosterone as they age. However, your sex drive won’t disappear entirely as you get older. A survey conducted by the US National Council on the Aging found almost half of people over 60 were having regular sex. What’s more, 39% wished they were having more sex, and 43% said that sex is just as good, if not better, than it was when they were younger.

Writer Tony Buzan conducted a series of surveys in 50 countries where he tested global assumptions about our sex lives. Contrary to popular belief, he found the most sexually active period in people’s lives occurred in the decade between 60 and 70. They were people who were for the most part fit and active, had amassed a wealth of experience, and had more time on their hands! We’ve found some interesting stats on sex in later life.

Myth: Older people are lonelier than others

You can be lonely at any age. Findings from the New Zealand General Social Survey 2010 shows young adults are the most likely to feel lonely. Eighteen per cent of 16-24 year olds felt lonely all, most, or some of the time, compared with 11% of older people (65+). The chances of feeling lonely decreased linearly with age, so older people were actually the least likely to feel lonely. Most older people have contact with others, even if they don’t get out and about as much as they used to. Increasing use of social media such as Facebook in the 65+ age group will help seniors stay more connected to family and friends.

Myth: You won’t be able to take care of yourself

One of the most common fears about ageing is that we will lose our independence and have to be put into a rest home. The reality is the majority of older people in New Zealand still live independently in their own homes. Some live in government rental flats or houses, and a comparatively small number live in residential care.

Retirement villages are a growing option. A lot of policy effort is being put into “ageing in place” – that is, having people stay in their own homes for as long as possible. While this is obviously better for the economy, it is usually the best option for seniors too. OECD figures from 2012 show 11.6% of people over 65 receive long term care in their home setting in New Zealand. And less than one in four people aged 85+ live in residential care facilities.

These days there are many new options for late-life care, ranging from completely independent living to full-time care. One 85-year-old we know has recently gone flatting! It’s a good idea to start planning for any care you may need long before you actually need it. This helps ensure that if the time ever comes when you need that care you will know what you want and be able to maintain as much independence.

Myth: Baby boomers are all the same

Just because people were born in a certain time period doesn’t mean their experiences are similar. In Baby Boomers: Busting the Myths Australian Jocelyn Auer challenges four powerful myths: that baby boomers are all the same; that they are a burden on society; that they are selfish and greedy; and that they want to work till they drop.

Myths about older workers

myths threeMyth: Older workers are taking jobs that younger people could be doing

Despite the currency of this idea during aperiod of high youth unemployment, economic arguments point to the contrary. After all, when women entered the workforce in large numbers it was feared they would take men’s jobs, but this didn’t happen. Having older workers who are active and productive benefits all age groups, and may spur the creation of new jobs. Nothing can replace the experience that older workers bring, along with loyalty, stability, strong work ethic, retention of skills and knowledge, and good customer service. Older workers also have fewer workplace accidents and sick days than younger co-workers.

If you want to know more, there’s a great article on the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College website about elder employment.

Myth: You’re too old for the job

Myths about older workers are abound. They’re supposed to be less productive, unable to adapt and be more accident prone than younger workers; none of this happens to be true.

The following myths about older workers are sourced from the former NZ Department of Labour’s website.

Myth: Older workers can’t or won’t learn new skills

While older workers sometimes take longer to absorb completely new material, their better study habits and accumulated experience actually lower training costs. Training that is tailored to people’s learning styles can be particularly beneficial.

Myth: Older workers are not flexible or adaptable

Older workers are just as adaptable but they are more likely to ask why changes are being brought in.

Myth: Older workers are less productive

Productivity is not a function of age. In fact, mature workers produce high quality work which can result in significant cost savings for employers. Stories abound of highly committed older workers preventing costly mistakes.

For more information on the ageing workforce see: