The Psychological and Social Impacts of Aging

You may look at the lives of your elderly loved ones and think that they haven’t a care in the world. Their education is complete. Their children are raised, and they no longer must slave away at a job for five days every week – at first glance, it seems that the average senior citizen is free to pursue leisure interests and generally enjoy a life unencumbered by former responsibilities and aggravations. While these things are true to a degree, it is important not to overlook or discount the many stresses a person faces when he or she begins to age.

Major Life Changes

As your loved one grows older, the familiarity that he or she has 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 the fact 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, but he might miss being a person that his children rely upon for their full care and support. Elderly individuals must accept that their roles in life will change as their former lifestyles are replaced by new routines and relationships.

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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. But 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

It is a widespread belief that as the brain grows older, a person’s capacity for reasoning begins to decline. In actuality, there is very little truth to this. A senior citizen’s intellectual capacity remains the same well into old age and as little as 1% of the population will live long enough to be affected by senility. While the elderly are just as intelligent as younger people, they sometimes process information more slowly or must repeat a new skill several times before the steps become second nature. Anybody who receives an inbox full of forwarded email jokes from an elderly relative is well aware that the saying, “Old dogs can’t learn new tricks” is completely untrue!

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 some other cognitive illness, then his or her “forgetfulness” probably consists only of brief memory lapses.  These lapses are normal occurrences in later life and are more a source of annoyance rather than an area for concern. A healthy senior’s long-term memory is just as good as anyone else’s; so if it seems as though your loved one is forgetting important things – such as doctor’s appointments or where she left her glasses – it is probably because this information did not remain in his or her short-term memory bank long enough to be transferred and stored in the long-term memory.

If you feel that your loved one’s forgetfulness is interfering significantly with his or her ability to function, you should research the signs of onset dementia. 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 elderly people become less physically able to engage in 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 of the people who once relied upon them for daily assistance.

Some seniors find themselves losing their freedom as they become caregivers for spouses, siblings or other elderly friends whose health have declined more rapidly than their own.

Grief and Loss

Your senior loved one must face the fact that the longer he or she lives, the more friends and family members may pass away ahead of him or her. 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. Although there were more people above age 65 counted in the 2010 census than in any previous census ever conducted, our seniors still struggle with stigmas placed on them by a youth-oriented society. Sadly, older people are commonly perceived as unsuitable employees, part of 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.

Be aware that an alarming amount of ageism occurs in the field of healthcare. Doctors often neglect research and preventative care focused on the elderly because of an attitude that “old people are supposed to be sick, and nothing much can be done about this because we can’t turn back time.” Aging Well Magazine reports that: “A survey conducted at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine revealed that 80% of medical students would aggressively treat pneumonia in a girl aged 10, while only 56% would do the same for a woman aged 85.”

Like any level of stereotyping, ageism is damaging to all people exposed to this mentality, but especially to those who are most affected by the discrimination. People buy into these untrue representations of the elderly, and even seniors are at risk of believing the false images of themselves that are so frequently shown to them. The Alliance for Aging Research suggests that “the perception of older Americans as frail, dependent and isolated may be a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

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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 him or her, and to be vigilant about detecting any problems that he or she 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 very important to a human’s well-being. If you notice your elderly loved one withdrawing from social activities, encourage him or her to join a senior center, attend church or participate in any other event that may interest him or her. 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
  • Focus
  • 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. The Alliance for Aging Research suggests these 10 ways to keep the brain young:

  • Play games that challenge your mind
  • Explore new hobby or craft possibilities
  • Take a class or course
  • Write your autobiography or create a family history scrapbook
  • Work as a volunteer with a non-profit organization
  • Consider starting a new part-time career
  • Visit a new place
  • Organize an activity for a group of friends or family members
  • Write letters to your loved ones
  • Keep a dream journal

Combat the negative effects of ageism by researching and discussing this troubling social problem with your loved one. Make sure that he or she does not buy into the stereotypical images of the elderly that are frequently portrayed by various types of media. Be prepared to act as an advocate for your loved one if his or her 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 to enjoy a healthy, thriving late adulthood.

Written by senior care writer Mack Fritch.

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