In the words of Robert N. Butler, we have shaped a society which is extremely harsh to live in when old. The tragedy of old age is not the fact that each of us must grow old and die but that the process of doing so has been made unnecessarily and at times excruciatingly painful, humiliating, debilitating and isolating through insensitivity, ignorance and poverty. The potentials for satisfactions and even triumphs in late life are real and vastly unexplored. For the most part, the elderly struggle to exist in an inhospitable world. Part of this inhospitableness is the prevalence of myths and stereotypes, in reality expressions of insensitivity and ignorance, that are inflicted on older people.
“Old People Are All the Same.” Older people are as highly differentiated as individuals as are members of any other age group. After all, they were once young, and people tend to carry their unique personal characteristics with them into their later years. Older people bear the mark of their accumulated personal experiences throughout life and perhaps become more different from one another with age, since the different experiences each has had are more numerous. Moreover, there are invisible “generational” differences in the life-forming experiences of those 65 and older. For example, today’s sixty-five-year-olds had no direct experience with war. They have other modern impacts.
“Old People Are Unproductive.” With advancing age, people leave the labor force. Their childbearing activities are long over, and there is typically an end to the assumption of any major responsibility for the children raised in their homes. But to view older persons as “unproductive” in such contexts is a form of blaming the victim for his or her personal situation. Most older people are indeed productive. Even if they do not continue to work outside the home, most remain socially active in a wide range of settings, politically involved at a level higher than that of most other age groups and active as key supporters and patrons of culture-disseminating institutions.
Older persons are expected to “act their age,” meaning that they may be admonished or ridiculed when they strive to continue many of the activities and behaviors arbitrarily reserved for and by those who are chronologically younger.
“Old People Are Senile.” Because some older persons exhibit psychological and behavioral deviations from what is socially defined by those younger as normal, it is often assumed that all do or someday will. In reality, relatively few persons age 65 and older exhibit such deviations, and in many cases “senility” is treatable and reversible. There are two sources of medically untreatable senility, both involving brain damage. In one case, there is a hardening of the arteries to the brain. But in recent years much more attention has been directed at what is known as Alzheimer’s disease, wherein neurons (nerve cells) in the brain are steadily lost or become degraded. Some have referred to Alzheimer’s disease as an “epidemic,” for it is a disease estimated to strike 19 percent of those 65 and older. Unfortunately, the cause of this disease is unknown. Correct diagnosis is usually not possible until symptoms are severe and debilitating. These include memory loss and disrupted thought processes, reflections of brain degeneration and shrinkage. There currently is no cure or way to halt the slow death that often results.