By Robin Phillips
“I am 67 years old and going into my advanced year in the Social Work Master's program at Wayne State University in Detroit,” writes John Lynch in a comment at The New Social Worker: the social work careers magazine. He adds, “I am very excited about this because for one thing retirement will never be on my radar and second I see it as a whole new beginning to a brand new chapter in my life.”
A woman Louise added to the discussion by sharing that she had never gone to college but decided to try it at age fifty. Five years later she is about to earn her Masters in Social Work, adding that she is “Living proof that, 'it is never too late'.”
The world of social work is filled with similar stories. In their forties, fifties and even sixties, people routinely switch careers to pursue a Masters in Social work towards the goal of becoming a licensed social worker. The same also occurs in other fields of the mental health industry: every year there are numerous people in their fifties, sixties, and sometimes even seventies, who become licensed psychologists, counsellors or marriage and family therapists.
These facts challenge us to rethink some of the stereotypes we have about aging. In this post I will suggest that many of our culture’s stereotypes about aging are not only unscientific, but can hold us back from realizing our true potential. I will show that how you think of the aging process can affect your self-perception, influencing the types of career paths you choose to pursue as you grow older.
How do you think of yourself as you age? For many of us, when we think about the aging process, the first words that come to our minds are negative terms like “decline”, “senility” and “decrepit.” This is because our culture tends to associate aging with cognitive and physiological decline.
By contrast, in many other cultures of the world, growing older is associated with positive qualities. For example, throughout much of Asia, growing old is seen as an accomplishment, something a person actually looks forward to. In much of Asia people expect to become more mentally fit with age, growing in qualities like wisdom, maturity, gratitude, integrated thinking and an ability to grasp the big picture.
Which of these stereotypes is correct?
Research pioneered by Becca Levy, professor of Epidemiology and Psychology at Yale University, suggests that some of the negative stereotypes about aging in our culture might need rethinking. Much of what we take for granted about aging is actually a cultural construct.
In her voluminous corpus of publications, drawn from first-hand laboratory research, Levy repeatedly showed that negative stereotypes about aging are self-fulfilling. If we expect to grow weak, passive and disengaged as we grow older, then there is a greater chance that we will.
In one of Levy’s most fascinating studies, one group of test-subjects were exposed subliminally to negative aging-stereotypes while another group were exposed to positive aging-stereotypes. Both groups were then asked to write something by hand. Finally, judges were given the handwriting samples and asked to rate them "according to how much they felt the samples were characterized by six attributes: accomplished, confident, deteriorating, senile, shaky, and wise. The age of each writer was also guessed."
What was so amazing about this study is that, without being told which people had been primed with which stereotype, the judges were able to accurately distinguish who had been exposed to the negative stereotypes vs. who had been exposed to positive stereotypes. How were the judges able to distinguish, on the basis of the handwriting samples alone, which group someone had been in? The answer is simple: those who had been primed with positive stereotypes were noticeably sharper, wiser and neater in what they wrote.
The same principles also apply to physiological ability. In another study, groups of seniors were asked to perform a physical activity after being exposed to either positive or negative age-stereotypes. The group that had been primed with negative aging-stereotypes showed greater cardiovascular stress and less physical fitness.
If stereotypes about aging can make such a difference in the artificial environment of the laboratory, what happens when we grow up in an entire society dominated by negative age-stereotypes? The answer to this question is clear if you simply look around you. All around us we see apparent proof that growing old is associated with mental decline and cognitive disengagement. As a consequence, we begin to think (perhaps unconsciously, according to some of the research) that this type of decline is inevitable.
Believing our culture’s negative narrative about aging comes at a cost since the way in which individuals view their own aging has been shown to affect their functional health. We have already seen how negative concepts of aging also affect cognitive health.
People often say ‘You are what you eat.’ Well, it is equally true that you are what you think. Our self-perception plays a central role in determining not simply how we think of ourselves, but the actual people we become. We grow to inhabit the futures we unconsciously expect for ourselves. This is especially true of seniors.
What happens when someone resists the messages of our culture and chooses to adopt a positive perspective on aging? According to some research, if you have a positive self-perception of aging in your younger years, this is actually predictive of how likely you will be to avoid adverse outcomes (i.e., hospital and nursing home admissions) when you are older. Moreover, positive self-perception of aging is also predictive of continuing levels of brain fitness, as we saw earlier from the handwriting samples.
Once again: you are how you think. If you think of age as necessarily and unavoidably connected with cognitive retardation, then there is a good chance this will be your experience. But if you think of age as unveiling new opportunities, a time to refine your skills, acquire new strengths and grow in wisdom, then you increase the likelihood of actually experiencing these benefits.
One of the reasons we are easily influenced by negative stereotypes of aging is that our perceptions affect how we actually behave. A person with fatalistic negative aging-stereotypes is less likely to engage in activities that help preserve or increase mental and physical fitness. In their book Growing Old; the Process of Disengagement, Elaine Cumming and William Henry showed that in America older adults will often withdraw from society in preparation of death. Thus, a common pattern in America is that retirement correlates with social disengagement. Social disengagement, in turn, accelerates a spiral of cognitive decline.
This suggests that having correct thinking is only one part of the picture: you also have to implement the right behavior. The elderly people who stay mentally and physical fit are those who put themselves in situations where they will be stretched, and where they refuse to let their age hold them back.
Are you 50 years old and considering a career change? Would you like to pursue a career in social work but others have told you that you are tool old? Do not let your age hold you back. By choosing to adopt a positive view of aging, you will actually increase the likelihood that you will stay fit, healthy and smart as you grow older.