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Westminster At Lake Ridge Blog

WLR Blog
Posted: Wednesday, August 26, 2020

How a positive image of aging can benefit your health

Most of us grew up with an image of what it might look like to grow older. But whether that impression was negative or positive can make all the difference. We tend to carry those presuppositions with us through life. And they often become the basis of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Our image of aging was likely formed when we were still children and can be influenced by our life experiences, strengthening our views even further. While many of our images are negative, the benefits of a more positive perception are many.

The advantages may be associated with increased longevity, better functional health and a higher likelihood of recovery from a serious disability, according to research. Other studies have discovered a positive view of aging can make older adults more resilient when they are faced with stressful situations.

The power of our perceptions

Studies have found we create our image of aging when we’re young. What we see on television, hear in conversations and experience with older relatives all contribute. Unfortunately, many form the belief that growing older is associated with decline, irrelevance and incompetence.

As we ourselves grow older and begin experiencing some of the changes that can accompany age, we may draw on these beliefs. Even a slight limitation or setback in our health may result in affirming that we can’t do certain things anymore, don’t have a purpose or that we no longer matter.

This hurts our psychological view of ourselves and older adults’ potential but can also have a negative impact on our health. To date, research has found that those who believe these negative aging stereotypes often:

  • Walk slower

  • Experience more memory problems

  • Recover slower and less completely from a fall

Creating a positive perception of aging

For those who strive to maintain a positive view or want to make changes to alter their images of growing older, there are steps you can take.  

The National Academy of Sciences’ Forum on Aging, Disability and Independence has set the goal of encouraging positive images of aging while decreasing the effects of negative stereotypes by offering these suggestions:

1. Become aware of implicit biases

These are the biases that remain below our consciousness level. They can be automatically triggered, such as when we immediately think of dependency when seeing an older person with a cane.

Try to pay attention to your automatic reactions to become aware of the triggers and responses. Ask yourself why you’re having this reaction. Dig deeper to better understand what assumptions you may be relying on and question their validity.

2. Create strategies to challenge biases

To help address these thoughts that have often gone unexamined, try these strategies:

Replace stereotypes: examine your assumptions and alter your responses

Embrace new images: find examples of those who don’t fit your old stereotypes and connect their images to the trigger, such as one who is fit and vibrant, instead of declining.

Individualize it: get to know the person. The more you know, the less likely you are to characterize them with a group stereotype.

Switch perspectives: try imagining yourself as a member of the stereotyped group and what it would feel like if you were in their place.

Make contact: interacting with those you’ve stereotyped can be an eye opener. Spend some time with them.

3. Emphasize the positive

In one of the more influential studies, Becca Levy, a Yale professor of psychology and researcher, discovered that exposing older adults to subliminal positive messages actually improved their mobility and balance.

If society would begin to provide positive feedback instead of negative, it could alter our perceptions of growing older. That may be unlikely to happen any time soon, but individually we can begin to change the view by focusing on what’s going well and the benefits of aging that we’ve discovered.

4. Claim a seat at the table

Growing older is something everyone will do if they’re lucky. And for those who do, they will eventually experience the prejudice reserved for older adults, known as ageism. Yet, many older adults remain silent and don’t even challenge the assumptions.

We need more advocacy - for and by ourselves - against ageism and to promote the positive aspects of aging. We all have a responsibility to contest the status quo. And when health care professionals and lawmakers come together to discuss what the challenges and solutions may be, older people shouldn’t be left out of the conversation.

Realism meets the possibilities

No one is denying that there is a reality to aging. But what’s important is to examine our assumptions and perceptions to determine if we’re limiting ourselves without cause.

Our bodies and minds do change as we grow older but we need to challenge the beliefs we may have made. Not only might we be mistaken, but there are often modifications we can take to compensate. The key is not to count yourself out of any activity or new skill because of a number. The actual chronological age you’ve reached is far less important than how you view your world.

Ingleside’s Westminster at Lake Ridge Independent Living community

At Westminster, you will not only find a positive image of aging but all the programs and amenities you need to stay that way.

We understand the physical and emotional health benefits that result from having a constructive mindset toward growing older and we support our residents in these efforts. We’ve designed our communities to respond and encourage those who will settle for nothing less than living an engaged and meaningful life.  

Call (703)794-4631 if you have any questions or would like to schedule a personalized tour today.

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