Study refutes aging stereotypes

What was your view of “senior citizens” when you were a youthful 20- or 30-something? Perhaps you pictured gray-haired, stooped elders walking with a cane, playing bingo in a retirement home, their calendars full of medical appointments. People whom life had passed by, who were simply marking time until the end.

A recent study by AARP and National Geographic largely debunked that stereotype. And those of us living in cohousing, especially senior cohousing, know it’s not true — we’re an active bunch who focus on healthy living. In an article on the AARP website (June 6, 2022), Sari Harrar reported on the study’s findings, summarized below.

Living with health conditions

Study participants reported that their life was basically good. In fact, most people over 50 who were living with one or more serious chronic health conditions rated their overall health as good to excellent. Now that’s a positive attitude! It suggests they were managing their health well enough to still enjoy a high quality of life. They feared loss of mobility and mental decline more than conditions like heart disease or diabetes.

The 60s seemed to be a turning point in many older people’s lives. The study showed a decrease in concerns about life expectancy while worries about energy level, cognitive skills, eyesight and memory became paramount. People got more serious about their health during this decade, which may account for reports of good health later on.

An impressive 44 percent of those 80 or older said they did strength training, making them as serious about muscles as the youngest in the study. Many equated muscle strength with mobility and independence. In fact, older people can sometimes be models of healthy living that younger people would do well to emulate.

Don’t worry, be happy

Older adults in the survey, especially those over 70, reported being the happiest compared to younger age groups. It seems that people at this age have figured out what really matters to them and are living their lives accordingly. Again, a positive attitude plays a role — positive beliefs about aging contribute to a sense of wellbeing.

Here’s what a couple of experts say:

  • Psychologically, people notice and prioritize the positive and let the negative go as they age.
    Louise Aronson, M.D., professor of geriatrics, University of California, San Francisco
  • My research shows that positive beliefs about aging can act as a buffer against stress, bolster your sense of control over your life and even your will to live, and motivate good habits. … Younger adults can cultivate positive attitudes toward aging by appreciating the strengths of the elders in their own lives. Develop a portfolio of positive images of aging by using four examples of older people you admire.
    Becca Levy, professor of epidemiology, Yale School of Public Health

Family counts, biologic or adopted

In general, families contributed more to people’s sense of joy and purpose than friends did, with one major exception. The growing number of single older adults who don’t have family nearby may fill this need with a “chosen” family of friends. Cohousing can certainly provide that. It may even allow older members to play a grandparent role to kids that live there or come to visit.

For older folks, intergenerational cohousing can provide an easy connection to younger people and their energy. Senior cohousing, on the other hand, provides the comfort of living with peers who understand aging. Both have their advantages for older people.

Money matters

Survey respondents did worry some about money, but more in terms of the future than the present. Many were fine with their current financial circumstances, but almost half were concerned that their money might not last if they lived a long time. That seems like a realistic worry, given that people in general are living longer, into their 80s or even 90s. Whatever their situation, people in cohousing can save money by sharing costs and goods or equipment.

Most respondents said they had expected to work after age 65, but in reality 82 percent retired by 64 or earlier. Nevertheless, 20 percent of those in their 80s or older had retired after age 70; 3 percent were still working and had no plans to stop. Many people in senior cohousing are retired, but a smaller number are still working — which makes those community dinners all the more attractive.

Preparing for death

The survey showed that fear of death decreased with age, although people became more concerned about controlling the circumstances of their death. Still, most people didn’t start making concrete plans until their 80s — plans that would help their families and medical team understand and carry out their end-of-life wishes. In senior cohousing communities, there’s a critical mass of older people who may motivate and help each other make such plans. Some communities even bring in expert speakers to help them address the subject.

As one woman said, “Aging is aging — it’s something that happens. It can be good if you have the right attitude, or it can be terrible if you resent it and think of all the aches and pains you’ve acquired.”

In this study, most people had chosen the right attitude.

About the study

The study began with a telephone survey of 2,580 adults age 18 and older. Participants were randomly selected, and the results were weighted to reflect U.S. demographics (age, gender, region, ethnicity and education) based on the 2020 U.S. census. In the second part of the study, 30-minute interviews were conducted with 25 adults age 40 and older. See the full article here.

Category: Aging in Community

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