The Psychological and Social Impacts of Aging
You may look at the lives of your elderly loved ones and think that they don't have a care in the world. At first glance, the average senior citizen seems free to pursue leisure interests and generally enjoy life unencumbered by former responsibilities and aggravations. Their education is complete, their children are raised, and they no longer must slave away at a job for five days a week. While these things are true to a degree, it is important not to overlook or discount the many stresses a person faces when they begin to age.
Major Life Changes
As your loved one grows older, the familiarity they have come to rely upon in life will gradually – or sometimes, very abruptly – transition. Major changes can be scary and may lead to feelings of insecurity and/or loss of self-worth. For example, while you may think your retired mother is the luckiest person in the world because she no longer has to get up early to drive to work, much of Mom’s identity may have been wrapped up in her job as a social worker who helped people in need.
Likewise, you may envy that your father gets to play with his grandchildren all day and relaxes with a book in the evening while you are back home trying to wrestle the kids into their pajamas and beds. Still, he might miss being someone his children rely upon for care and support. Elderly individuals must accept that their roles in life will change as new routines and relationships replace their former lifestyles.
Fear of the Future
As a person ages, the inevitability of death becomes more real and can often be a source of uncertainty and dread. Many seniors also struggle with anxieties linked to pre-mortality concerns, such as:
- Will my life lose its meaning if I am no longer useful?
- How long will I be able to care for myself?
- Will I lose my mental faculties?
- If my physical health deteriorates, will I have to give up the activities I enjoy?
- Can I cope with losing my loved ones?
These are questions with no definite answers, and wondering what the future may hold can be a source of much anxiety for your senior loved one.
Memory and Learning
Anybody who receives an inbox full of forwarded email jokes from an elderly relative knows that the saying, “Old dogs can’t learn new tricks,” is untrue. It is a widespread belief that as the brain ages, a person’s capacity for reasoning significantly declines, which is a huge misconception. Although the brain and other organs suffer age-related changes, many senior citizens enjoy normal intellectual capacity during old age and can learn new information.
Poor memory is a stereotypical malady of the senior citizen, but the truth is not as bad as people tend to believe. If your elderly loved one is not experiencing dementia or has not suffered a brain injury or other cognitive illness, then their “forgetfulness” probably consists only of brief memory lapses. These lapses are everyday occurrences in later life and are more a source of annoyance rather than an area for concern.
If you feel that your loved one’s forgetfulness is interfering significantly with their ability to function, you should seek medical advice. You can also learn more about various brain conditions by visiting education websites. Also, be aware that certain reversible conditions affect the memories of people who are both young and old. A few of these include:
- Lack of sleep
- Side effects of medication
- Depression or apathy for life
- High stress
- Treatable conditions, such as thyroid problems or a vitamin B-12 deficiency
Loss of Independence
As older adults become less physically able to engage in their favorite hobbies, drive themselves to appointments or take care of things around the house, they often mourn their loss of independence. It is difficult to rely on others for essential care or even to ask for small favors at times – particularly for the people who once relied upon them for daily assistance.
Some seniors lose their freedom as they become caregivers for spouses, siblings, or other elderly friends whose health has declined more rapidly than their own.
Grief and Loss
Your senior loved one must face the fact that the longer they live, the more friends and family members may pass away ahead of them. Losing the people they care about can leave seniors feeling abandoned and vulnerable.
Ageism and Discrimination
Ageism is defined as discrimination based on an individual’s age. While the U.S. population is aging, seniors still struggle with stigmas placed on them by a youth-oriented society. Sadly, society perceives older people as unsuitable employees and a demographic that is not worth advertising to because they are already “set in their ways.” This neglect by the workplace and the media leads to widespread misconceptions about the lifestyles and usefulness of our elderly citizens.
Like any level of stereotyping, ageism damages all people exposed to this mentality, especially those most affected by the discrimination. People buy into these misrepresentations of the elderly, and even seniors are at risk of believing the perpetuated false images of themselves. The Alliance for Aging Research suggests that “the perception of older Americans as frail, dependent and isolated may be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Helping Your Loved One Cope
The best thing you can do to help your senior loved one live a worry-free life is to listen to them and be vigilant about detecting any problems they may not feel comfortable sharing. Be sensitive to your loved one’s feelings and fears, and initiate conversations about the concerns of later life.
Socialization and relationships are vital to a human’s well-being. If you notice your elderly loved one withdrawing from social activities, encourage them to join a senior center, attend church or participate in any other event that may interest them. Transportation is often a problem for seniors who no longer drive their own vehicle, but you can help your loved one by arranging for public or private ride assistance.
You can help your senior loved one keep a sharp memory by using these seven tips provided by the Mayo Clinic:
- Stay mentally active
- Socialize regularly
- Get organized
- Eat a healthy diet
- Daily physical activity
- Manage chronic illnesses
Remind your loved one that the aging brain is as capable as anybody else’s when it comes to creativity and learning new skills. Harvard Health suggests these 12 ways to keep the brain young:
- Get mental stimulation by playing puzzle games and solving math problems
- Exercise regularly
- Improve your diet (i.e., add more fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts to your diet.)
- Manage your high blood pressure
- Manage your blood sugar
- Manage your cholesterol
- Avoid smoking tobacco
- Don’t abuse alcohol
- Consider low-dose aspirin and ask your doctor if this medication is right for you
- Take care of your mental health
- Protect your head
- Be social and pursue social activities
Combat the adverse effects of ageism by researching and discussing this troubling social problem with your loved one. Make sure they do not buy into the stereotypical images of the elderly that are frequently portrayed by various types of media. Be prepared to advocate for your loved one if their life is ever directly influenced by ageism.
With the benefit of your concern, love, and dedication, your elderly friend or relative will be better able to face the challenges of growing older and enjoy a healthy, thriving late adulthood.
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