Managing our Fears About Aging

Our culture is enthusiastic about babies, children, young adults and even middle aged individuals. The awe fades in regard to the aging population and is often tinged by discomfort and even avoidance of seniors. What propels us to avoid, ignore or marginalize elders and fear aging?

It is understandable why our culture is in love with youthfulness, vitality, creativity, high energy, enthusiasm and dynamism of active and accomplished individuals. It helps us feel stimulated, charged and motivated to live up to our higher potential by emulating those whom we admire. Conversely, we may feel uncomfortable around those whom we perceive to be less accomplished, unmotivated, distracted, inept or uninteresting.

Perhaps the most compelling drive to admire youth and reject the aged comes from our deep-seated fears about our own future aging, deterioration and anticipated loss of worth and significance to others.

The anticipated state of loss of autonomy, self-sufficiency, impending illness, dependence on others and the loss of “mattering” to dear ones are profound tormentors living within all beings as they age. This dread is not new or unique to this era. Psychiatrist and philosopher Carl Jung stated in 1933, “Are there perhaps colleges for 40-year-olds which prepare them for their coming life and its demands as the ordinary colleges introduce young people to a knowledge of the world? No, there are none.”

Observing many seniors struggle to preserve physical and intellectual competence and their loss of mastery and power as they age, frightens the younger generation and alerts them to the possible path they may also be doomed to travel.

Researchers Dana Kotter-Gruhn and Thomas M. Hess found, “After the activation of negative age stereotypes, older adults in good health felt older and those in bad health wanted to be younger than before the priming. Even younger and middle-aged adults assigned younger desired ages to themselves after being subjected to negative age stereotype priming and persons in bad health thought they looked older after being primed with negative age stereotypes.”

In the “Development of children’s prejudice against the aged” Researchers LW Isaacs and DJ Bearison found that “The degree to which individuals are ‘taught’ early in life that older people are frail in body and mind will determine their attitudes towards seniors and their approach to their own aging.”

These findings may prompt us to teach children the beauty, wisdom and experience-rich gifts of the elderly. Doing so may help these children treat adults and seniors with admiration, not fear or aversion. It may also help them as they age to view their shortcomings as normal and expected rather than dreaded and humiliating.

Manage your views about aging:

  • Abstain from believing that normal aging deficiencies reduce anyone to a lesser valued state of being.
  • Understand that changes in others create pain and suffering and that kind, supportive and affirming words are healing.
  • Teach your children and grandchildren to value the gifts of seniors. It will reduce your own fear of aging and endear you to others.



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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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