Challenging three myths about ageing

Debunking the myths: It is unfair and wrong of us to presume our quality of life will decrease as we grow older. Here are the facts

Our culture has embedded many myths and misconceptions surrounding ageing. These ideas are varied, but are often one-dimensional, suggesting a decline in physical, mental, and social performance.

As we grow older, it is unfair and wrong of us to presume our quality of life will decrease, that our purpose will become muddled along with our minds, and that every year added will stop us from learning, growing, and being a valued member of our communities.

To help break some of these myths, Nat O’Connor, senior public affairs and policy specialist with Age Action Ireland, helps to dispel some of the biggest myths surrounding ageing.

1) Myth — Ageing means increased cognitive impairment

“It is a mistake to think about all older people in a homogenous way,” says O’Connor, “There is as much of an age difference between people aged 65 and 95 as there is between people aged 20 and 50.”

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Cognitive development continues as we age. The more active we are in pursuing activities that stimulate our brain, the more we exercise our memory and build on our cognitive reserve.

“At every age, and across older age, there is a lot of diversity,” says O’Connor. “Some level of cognitive impairment is associated with older age as our brains grow older, but severe cognitive decline is not an inevitable part of growing old. It is possible to achieve healthy ageing through a combination of personal effort (diet, exercise) and social policy (income adequacy, health services, social supports).”

O’Connor reminds us that the recent WHO Global Report on Ageism highlighted that older people’ health is affected by ageism. “If older people are exposed to negative stereotypes around ageing, there is evidence that this impacts on their memory and other cognitive abilities.”

2) Myth — Ageing means a likelihood of dementia.

“Thankfully, the majority of older people don’t get dementia,” says O’Connor. The idea that ageing is defined with dementia is a myth ingrained out of personal fears, but dementia is not a normal part of ageing.

“There are one million people aged 60+ in Ireland, including around 183,000 people aged 80 or older,” says O’Connor. “There are over 64,000 people suffering from dementia. Most dementia sufferers are over the age of 80, but even in this age group, most people don’t suffer from dementia. The number of older people in Ireland is expected to increase to 1.4 million by 2032, and the number of people aged 80 or older is expected to double. This will lead to an increase in the number of cases of dementia, but it will still only affect a minority of older people.”

Although common, memory loss is not the only symptom of dementia and is not always a cause for concern. “It is also important to remember the diversity in how dementia affects people,” says O’Connor. “There are different causes of the condition, and people can be at early, middle and late stages in how badly affected they are. Not everyone suffering from dementia is affected to the same extent. It is equally important to remember that cognitive ability is not a binary. For example, a person’s ability to calculate or manage money might become affected, but they might be fully competent to deal with other areas of their life. It is important to consider a person’s capacity to deal with different types of activity.”

As we age, missing the odd payment, confusing our words, and misplacing items are normal aspects of ageing. Personality changes, difficulties with language skills, paying attention, and visual perception are more indicative of some form of dementia.

“The new Decision Support Service (DSS) is meant to launch towards the end of this year,” says O’Connor, “which will set out new rules and guidelines about helping people (of all ages) to make decisions when they are affected by any loss of mental capacity. As a society, we are moving away from the old Ward of Court approach, which took away all of a person’s rights, and we are replacing it with a rights-based system that respects the dignity of the person and seeks to help them retain choice and control over their lives for as long as possible.”

3) Myth — Withdrawing from the world is common and expected.

Feelings of isolation and loneliness are often attributed to ageing. Yet, people are fully aware that withdrawing from the world due to depression, anxiety, or sadness can occur at any stage of our lives. The misconception that this kind of withdrawal is probable as we age is a vast misunderstanding of the life of the older person. Withdrawing is not a normal part of ageing.

“As well as remaining at work,” says O’Connor, “there are many ways that older people are involved in society, including volunteering, learning, socialising, care giving, and being active in local community groups. Some older people are affected by loneliness, but not the majority, and where social exclusion or isolation does occur it is not an inevitable or natural result of ageing.”

O’Connor indicates that the inadequacies of our society, including issues with transport, Covid-19 “cocooning” policy and income inadequacy all play a role in causing people to become socially isolated. “For example,” says O’Connor, “people in rural areas or suburbs are often car dependent and they can lose their independence if they lose their ability to drive. Older people living alone tend to have the lowest incomes and the greatest risk of poverty, which particularly affects people aged 75+ and women more than men. It is often due to lack of income rather than choice that people may limit their social activities, and this is a particular concern in the current context of a rapidly rising cost of living. The Government’s commitment to support people to age in place in their communities has to include the provision of transport options, the provision of home support services and to make sure that everyone has an adequate income in older age.”

Society has developed the myth that older people are socially isolated and overwhelmingly lonely. However, this stage of life is a period of change, new challenges, and opportunities for personal growth.

Myths Series

Geraldine Walsh

Geraldine Walsh

Geraldine Walsh, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health and family