Robert Butler first described ageism as a term in gerontology in 1969. He described it as discrimination or disparity similar to other forms of bigotry such as racial and sexual discrimination. He defined it as a process of mythical stereotyping against people because they are old while discriminating them on this basis. Today, ageism is broadly described as any form of prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination against or in favor of a particular age group. Ageism refers to the beliefs, attitudes, ways of behaving and the feelings that people have towards the senior citizens or the elderly (Depp & Jeste, 2006).
Ageism has mythical characteristics and different views held by people, which affect the way they view aging. These attitudes also affect the care-giving roles in relation to the elderly. It is, therefore, important for a nursing professional to recognize such impact and ensure that the myths and stereotypes of aging will not affect the quality of care given to the senior citizens. The paper aims at highlighting the different myths and stereotypes related to aging and how they impact the care of the old. It will also explore the nurses’ roles as a positive change agent in the society.
Stereotypes and Myths of Aging
Modern society tends to have a variety of emotions and attitudes towards the aged. In a study conducted by Depp and Jeste (2006), researchers wrote a group of descriptive words from which the participants of the sytudy were required to select those ones that the best describe the aged people they know. The researchers got surprising results, some of the respondents used only a few groups while others incorporated more than ten, whereas the highest number of groups reached 17. It was established from the results that the people generally have more than one level of perception of the seniors, e.g. the general traits, specific traits (negative versus positive), and individual characteristics (Depp & Jeste, 2006). The general traits were described by the researchers as those that are related to many old people, including poor eyesight, gray haired, bald, and hearing impairment. The specific traits included those adjective groups that were either positive or negative when defining the old. The youth, who were the respondents in the study, provided a group of twelve specific features, but only four of them were positive and the other eight were negative.
Focusing clearly on how the aged are perceived in modern society indicates the presence of many stereotypes about the old. According to Baltes & Baltes (1990), these stereotypes are deeply rooted into such elements as religious background and spiritualitual values, health conditions, activities and hobbies, kind of employment, financial status and many other aspects. The old are generally considered to be deeply religious, mean and always depressed while suffering from numerous psychological and physical problems. However, at the same time they are viewd as people with full of experience and wisdom in their communities (Baltes & Baltes, 1990). Some people also describe the old as either wealthy or living in abject poverty and with no financial responsibilities. However, this aspect is interconnected with their financial status adulthood years.
There are many myths existing and popularized in the society today. The first one presumes a fact that the aged are dependent on others and need constant and full-time care. The myth has originated from the media, which always shows the old being taken to nursing homes or having a nurse employed to provide them with home care. It qualifies to be a myth because statistics indicate that only five percent of the elderly live in nursing homes. The second myth is dedicated to a fact that the old cannot do nothing but sit around and sleep. It originates from the attitude that people have towards the old indicating an idea that the retired are inactive.
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However, many old people are active. The housekeeping and complex cleaning work are mostly done by the old. Moreover, retired people always look for something to remain active. Unless in the case of sickness, the old are as active as young people. Another myth connected to this matter is that old people who remain active suffer from ill health more than those who sit around and rest. Obviously, it is mythical because the theory of continuity and aging suggests that for successful aging, the old need to remain active. However, the activity level should be regulated to be compatible with the changes of body and mind. The aged are also thought to have chronic diseases that limit their freedom and actions. Although it is true that these diseases are more common with advanced age, all the aged are not at the same level of vulnerability. In fact, the vulnerability depends on lifestyle and genetic predisposition as well as other environmental factors.
Other myths associated with the aged are related to their social relationships. First, they are thought to have lost the attraction to the opposite sex and friendship. Generally, it is untrue because physiologically and psychologically these individuals have the same necessities as the young do. Second, the old are perceived to be avoiding interactions and acquaintances because they are obsessed with death, which is untrue. Although the realization of life ending is more observed at old age, the elderly are not obsessed with dying. They enjoy the interactions and socialization just as anybody else (Phelan, 2008).
Impact of Myths on Care of the Old
The ageing population has some of the most challenging health problems. Physiologically, their bodies are changing, there is multiple organ atrophy, so that aging results in many health needs (Muangpaisana et al., 2008). Indeed the rising age dependency ratio reduces the number of the healthcare workforce and increases healthcare needs. These needs are at risk of being inadequately met because of negative stereotypes and myths placed on the old. Lui et al. (2012) identifies that negative beliefs and attitudes towards older people and myths related to aging are precursors to ageism. Ageism often makes others see older people as depressing, sickly, and unproductive, while recognizing that their cognitive impairment is a natural consequence of ageing (Palmore, 1999).
Healthcare professionals are reported to be particularly susceptible to ageism and mythical stereotyping because of their increased exposure to the work with old people (Kearney et al., 2000). The attitudes of many gerontology nurses affect their preference for working with old people as well as the quality of care offered to them. Therefore, it is clear that the myths and wrong perception of the old are affecting the healthcare. A nurse who understands that the old may lead unhealthy lifestyle and have chronic illnesses will not be so keen on preventing the health compromising conditions and activities for these people. The myths also affect the health seeking behaviors of the old and their families. When they consider ill health as a standard, they will not even comply with the prescribed therapy.
The Nursing Role in Changing the Myths
Undoubtedly, the impact the myths have on the care of the old is negative. The nurse as a patient's advisor has a central role in changing these attitudes, stereotypes, and myths. For this role to be successful, the nurse must first change their own myths and stereotypes. Viewing ill health as it is and recognizing the difference between the standard expectations of the old and individual needs will help nurses in recognizing changes in the health condition. Moreover, this recognition will expose the nurse to play a role of an educator to the patient, family, and society (Miller, 2012). The care given to the old should be non-discriminative and without any difference, but focused on their specific needs related to the changes in their physiological and psychological aspects. The community needs to be educated to accept the senior citizens in the same way as others and as individuals whose health needs should be prioritized (Pope, 2011).
The lifestyle needs of the aged should be enhanced. The nurse has a role to ensure that the susceptibility of the people to lifestyle diseases and their complications are reduced. It can be done through encouraging patients and families to embrace exercise and positive change of lifestyle. The old are also faced with social needs. Thus, the nurses should realize it and educate the patients’ families about the need to meet the interaction and socialization needs of the old. Such aspect should be achieved through encouraging the families to visit and interact with the patients while establishng relationships among themselves (Topaz & Doron, 2013).
Global statistics show that there is an increasing number of old people in the world. This trend is anticipated to remain the same or even accelerate due to better sensitivity changes in the lifespan. Quality of life is achieved through enhanced value of one’s self especially at the end of life. Old people are exposed to different physical, mental, and social changes. With these changes, they need support and appropriate care. However, if nursing care becomes dependent on the attitudes created by ageism, stereotypes, and myths, their quality of life will be compromised. The aged people need friendship and careful attention, and definitely not isolation. Only when the existing stereotypes and negative beliefs are extracted from the society, such steps will be effective. The nurse should ensure that the negative myths concerning the old are overcome to enhance the quality of life of the elderly.