All of these statements are false. Unfortunately, the characteristics most frequently ascribed to older persons tend to be stereotypes. In this article I will discuss various myths connected to the aging process and provide evidence to refute these myths. I will be discussing the myth of the depressed older adult and the fact that the elderly are assumed to suffer from greater psychological distress than younger adults. Life satisfaction of the elderly will also be covered. Myths relating to the family relationships of older adults will be highlighted. In particular, the belief that seniors are alienated from their families will be considered. Attention will be devoted to the many prevalent myths regarding aging and sexuality. Older individuals are generally erroneously viewed as asexual people who have lost both their interest in sex and their capacity for sexual behavior. Isolation from social networks is another myth regarding the aged that will be addressed. Finally, I will briefly explore myths related specifically to older women's lives using cross-cultural data I collected for a previous research study.
Aging and Mental Health: The Myth of the Depressed Older Adult
The most prevalent myth regarding the mental health of older adults is the belief that they are more depressed than younger adults (Feinson, 1985). This myth is not only held by individuals, it is touted in the media and embraced by major organizations. It is striking to trace the persistence of this myth in the absence of clear empirical support. An excerpt from a 1978 Report to the President espouses, "The prevalence of mental illness and emotional distress is higher among those over age 65 than in the general population." In 1979, the President's Commission on Mental Health officially stated that "depression escalates decade by decade," and a government report in 1982 asserted that "experts agree that older persons generally have greater needs for mental health services than the population at large." These statements certainly point to the psychological distress of elderly individuals. Yet, a thorough review of the research on the prevalence of depression among the aging fails to find clear and convincing evidence of a greater incidence among older adults. The myth of the depressed older adult is so strongly established in our culture that even official government documents assert its veracity without any clear evidence to support it.
Marjorie Feinson (1985) set out to determine if there was any truth underlying the prevailing myth of the depressed older person. The two research questions guiding her investigation were (a) whether older adults actually experience more distress than younger adults and (b) whether depressed feelings increase with age for those over age 65. She discovered a dearth of empirical studies comparing the mental health of younger and older adults. In fact, she located only three studies that focused on the mental health of the elderly population. In addition, when a study did include individuals over the age of 65 as participants, these individuals were all lumped into a single category. There seemed to be a double standard: the younger adults were grouped into smaller age brackets, whereas individuals over age 65 were considered a single entity for research purposes. This double standard conveys the implicit message that age distinctions cease to matter once an individual reaches age 65. The difference between a 25-year-old and a 55-year-old is therefore important, yet it is not considered meaningful to distinguish between a 65-year-old and a 95-year-old.
To answer her first research question, Feinson (1985) compiled comparison studies of the psychological health of young and old adults. She examined 21 research studies, which utilized a total of 31 different measures of psychological distress. The most striking result was that the largest number of studies (ten) revealed no age differences in distress levels. The second largest group of studies (eight) showed that younger adults actually experienced significantly more distress than older adults. Three studies yielded mixed results. Although six studies reported higher distress levels among older adults, only three of these studies achieved statistical significance. Hence, these findings fly in the face of the prevailing myth of the depressed older adult. It appears more likely that elderly individuals experience either similar or lower rates of depression than do their younger counterparts.
A closer examination of the three studies that reported significantly higher rates of distress among the elderly revealed some methodological problems (Feinson, 1985). For example, one difficulty in measuring psychological distress among the elderly is the high rate of physical illness in this age group. In order to collect accurate data, symptoms of chronic diseases must be teased apart from symptoms of psychological disturbance. A physical complaint, such as fatigue, may be viewed as a reflection of a depressed state, but may actually be a sign of a physical illness.
Feinson's (1985) second research question focused on the belief that psychological distress increases with age for those over 65. She found very few studies that actually divided participants into different age groups above the age of 65. One study of 313 older adults was chosen for review because participants were separated into the age categories 65-74, 75-84, and 85 and over. Participants were administered two assessment instruments that contained five different measures of psychological distress. According to the results, psychological distress did not increase with age on four of the five scales. Anxiety was the only type of distress that significantly increased with age.
Aging and Life Satisfaction: The Myth of the Youth-Obsessed Older Adult
It is widely assumed that the final developmental stage of life is marked by a decrease in life satisfaction and, consequently, a tendency to cherish the earliest years of life. Field (1997) used information from the Berkeley Older Generation Study to determine whether this myth is founded on reality. The Berkeley Older Generation Study is extremely unique as a 60-year longitudinal investigation of the various developmental stages of life. Parents of children born in Berkeley, California, were randomly selected for inclusion in the study. The parents were interviewed as young adults, middle-aged adults, young-old adults (ages 65-75), and old-old adults (over 85). Field examined the responses given by participants as young-old adults and old-old adults.
The two specific interview questions that tapped into happiness with life were: (a) "Looking back, what period of your life brought you the most satisfaction?" and (b) "What period brought you the least satisfaction?" In responding to the first question, the largest percentage of young-old interviewees selected the decade of their 50s as the most satisfying. When this same question was posed to the interviewees 14 years later, the decades of the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 60s were about equally selected as the most satisfying life period. When questioned about the least satisfying life period, interviewees who were young-old and old-old selected childhood and adolescence. Contrary to the myth of the youth-obsessed older adult, the era of childhood does not become more cherished with age.
Best Time of Life
Another interesting result from this study was the finding that many participants in the later life stages selected "right now" as the best time in their lives. Specifically, 36% of participants in their 60s selected "right now" as the best time, 9% in their 70s selected "right now," and 15% of those in their 80s selected "right now." In contrast, none of the respondents in their 90s selected "right now" as the best time in their lives. However, it should be noted that many respondents also selected "right now" as the least satisfying time in their lives.
Self-Perception of Aging: The Myth of Cultural Differences
Tien-Hyatt (1986) examined older adults' satisfaction with their lives by comparing self-perceptions of aging across cultures. In this study, "self-perceptions of aging refer to how old people feel about themselves and see themselves in relation to others" (p. 130). Participants for this study were females between the ages of 60 and 75 from three distinct cultures: Anglo Americans, Chinese Americans, and Chinese residing in Taiwan. Data was collected using a semistructured interview format. Questions focused on perceptions of happiness, sense of importance, contact with kin, reverence for the elderly, and concerns about political - economic situations. The results showed no significant difference among the three groups in self-perceptions of aging.
Most important to note is that the self-perceptions of all three groups were positive. An examination of the trends in the data revealed that the Anglo American participants held the most positive views of aging, followed by the Chinese American participants, and then the Chinese participants. Within the Anglo American sample, the two factors that correlated most highly with self-perceptions of aging were self-rated physical health and perceived reverence for the elderly. Hence, Anglo Americans felt it was most important to retain good physical health and feel respected in society. Maintenance of physical fitness can provide many different benefits to the elderly, including the necessary mobility to travel to visit family members and maintain social contacts, and the capacity to continue to engage in sexual behavior. The two highest correlates of self-perceptions on aging for the Chinese American sample were mental health and self-perceived reverence for the elderly. The Taiwanese participants' self-perception of aging was most highly correlated with mental health and service utilization (Tien-Hyatt, 1986).
Aging and Family Relationships: The Myth of the Alienated Older Adult
When it comes to family relationships, one prevailing myth holds that older individuals become more alienated from their families with increasing age. Specifically, it is believed that older parents become more distant and isolated from their children. As with the myths presented above, evidence for this assertion is lacking. Support for this myth is largely based on the fact that the majority of older individuals do not reside in the same house as their adult children (Shanas, 1979). The underlying assumption is that these elderly parents live separately because they are shunned by their children. However, separate living accommodations do not necessarily indicate alienated relationships between the generations.
Shanas (1979) examined four hypotheses derived from the myth of the alienated older adult. The first hypothesis holds that "because of the geographic mobility of the population of the U.S. most old people who have children live at great distances from their children" (p. 6). The facts tell a different story. Most older adults do live close to at least one of their children. Although the percentage of elderly parents living in the same home with their children has decreased over the years, the percentage of elderly parents living 10 minutes away or less from their children has increased. Therefore, the decision of parents and children to reside in separate domiciles does not reflect alienation of the older generation, but a surge in the independence and autonomy of the older generation.
The second hypothesis (Shanas, 1979) based on the alienation myth states that "because of the alienation of old people from their children, most older parents rarely see their children" (p. 6). This hypothesis is also unsubstantiated by data. More than half of the respondents in a research study reported by Shanas (1979) had seen one of their children either the day the data was collected or the previous day. Seventy-seven percent of the participants had seen one of their children within the week of the data collection. These statistics have not significantly changed over the years. Hence, the majority of elderly individuals have frequent and regular contact with their grown children.
The third hypothesis (Shanas, 1979) derived from the alienation myth maintains that "because of the predominance of the nuclear family in the U.S., most old people rarely see their siblings or other relatives" (p. 6). Again, this hypothesis must be rejected due to insufficient evidence. One third of the participants in the study cited by Shanas (1979) had seen at least one of their siblings within the week of their interview, and more than half of the interviewees had seen one of their siblings within the month of the interview. Anthropologist David Schneider described the pattern of contact between siblings across the life cycle as an "hourglass effect." Individuals tend to have the most contact with their siblings during their youth. The contact between siblings decreases in young adulthood and middle life and rises again during later life. Older persons who have lost their partners rely most heavily on sibling support and companionship (Shanas, 1979).
The fourth hypothesis (Shanas, 1979) based on the myth of the alienated older adult suggests that "because of the existence and availability of large human service bureaucracies, families are no longer important as a source of care for older people" (p. 6).
However, statistics show that older individuals are not immediately placed into human service agencies when they require additional living assistance. Institutions such as nursing homes are used as a last resort for elderly relatives. An examination of the decision to secure institutional care for an older relative revealed that "they [relatives] have exhausted all other alternatives, endured severe personal, social and economic stress in the process, and made the final decision with the utmost reluctance" (Brody, 1977, p. 96).
Aging and Sexuality: The Myth of the Asexual Older Adult
One of the most pervasive myths in our society is the belief that a decrease in sexual interest and a diminished capacity for sexual behavior are an intrinsic part of the aging process. This myth is heavily reinforced by depictions of asexual older persons in the popular media and is largely unquestioned by the majority of the population. Older individuals who do not seem to conform to this stereotype are considered to be perverse or deviant. To understand just how deeply ingrained this myth has become, consider the following exercise (adapted from Hammond, 1987, p. 12):
You are walking through a park during the daylight hours, when you come upon two persons sitting on a park bench. They are kissing and hugging, totally immersed in each other and completely oblivious to anyone or anything around them. Upon looking closer, you find they are either: (a) a young man and a young woman, (b) an old man and an old woman, (c) an old man and a young woman, (d) an old woman and a young man, (e) two women, or (f) two men. Visualize the various couple combinations and select your reaction from the following choices: good for them, okay, sweet, undignified, shameful, perverse, should be arrested. Whereas most people would not take note of the young man and the young woman embracing on the bench, the other couples would most likely evoke strong reactions.
Rubin (1976) reported that undergraduate students at Brandeis University participated in a study designed to measure attitudes toward the elderly. Among the items on the survey, respondents were asked to complete the sentence, "Sex for most old people . . ." The responses illustrated the most common views on the sexual experiences of the elderly. Sample responses included "negligible," "unimportant," and "past." The responses revealed a pronounced tendency for younger adults to either minimize or flat-out deny the importance of sexuality for older persons.
The Myth of Equating Sex With Youth
The stereotype of the sexless older adult has the potential to be particularly harmful by serving as a self-fulfilling prophecy (Rubin, 1976). Because sexual behavior is partially dictated by cultural expectations, older persons may refrain from seeking or continuing sexual relationships because they themselves have come to accept the social stigma. Rubin (1976) outlines several factors that facilitate the perpetuation of the myth of the asexual older adult:
These include our general tradition of equating sex, love, and romance solely with youth; the psychological difficulty that children have of accepting the fact of parental intercourse; the tendency to think of aging as a disease rather than a normal process; the focusing of studies upon hospitalized or institutionalized older people rather than upon a more typical sample of persons less beset by health, emotional, or economic problems; and the unfortunate fact that--by and large--physicians have shared the ignorance and prejudices equally with the rest of society. (p. 437)
Specific hypotheses derived from this myth are that sexual interest and behavior among older persons are morally wrong and that the elderly lose interest and do not engage in sexual behavior (Rotberg, 1987).
Although it is not always discussed in an open forum, many individuals hold the unspoken belief that sexual behavior among the elderly is amoral. This notion seems to be a throwback to Victorian-era thinking in which sexuality was a taboo topic for discussion and sexual intercourse was considered necessary solely for the purpose of procreation. Because the elderly have surpassed their childbearing years, sexual intercourse is therefore viewed as hedonistic and sinful. Fortunately, the values of most Americans have shifted, particularly since the feminist movement and the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, and sexual behavior is now more widely embraced as an integral part of the intimacy that is shared between two individuals.
The belief that men and women lose interest in sex and become asexual as they age has been disproved time and again by many studies. Kinsey's landmark research on sexual behavior found that women's capacity for sexual pleasure did not significantly diminish with age (Kinsey, Pomeroy, Martin, & Gebhard, 1953). Masters and Johnson (1966) took an in-depth look at geriatric sexual responses utilizing male and female participants over the age of 60. This study also documented that a woman's ability to reach orgasm was not hindered by the aging process. This was particularly true for men and women who maintained active sex lives, as captured in the following quote:
There is every reason to believe that maintained regularity of sexual expression coupled with adequate physical well-being and healthy mental orientation to the aging process will combine to provide a sexually stimulative climate within a marriage. This climate will, in turn, improve sexual tension and provide a capacity for sexual performance that frequently may extend to and beyond the 80-year age level. (p. 270)
Researchers at Duke University's Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development surveyed 254 men and women between the ages of 60 and 94 about their sexual activity. They found that these older individuals retained their interest in sexual behavior and continued to participate in sexual activity (Busse & Maddox, 1985, as cited in Busse, 1996).
In 1981, Starr and Weiner conducted a study to investigate the sexual facets of older persons' lives. They collected data from 800 healthy men and women ranging in age from 60 to 91. Again, this study demonstrated that elderly individuals are interested in sex and actively engage in sexual acts. In fact, the frequency of sexual activity among these participants matched the level of sexual activity reported by the 40-year-old men and women in Kinsey's study (Kinsey et al., 1953).
As these studies clearly attest, sexual interest and sexual behavior do not necessarily wane as women and men grow older. Lack of an available partner may present a challenge for older individuals who desire sexual activity. For those without access to a sexual partner, masturbation continues to provide a satisfying sexual release into old age.
In their updated book, The New Love and Sex After 60, Butler and Lewis challenge several myths of sexuality in the later years (as cited in Elias, 2002). Among them is the notion that diminished sexual capacity accompanies aging. One specific idea is that old age causes incurable impotence in men. Statistically speaking, 25% of men between the ages of 65 and 80 experience significant problems getting and/or keeping erections. This figure jumps to 50% of men in the over-80 age category. However, advances in medical science have yielded several solutions to this problem, including the drug Viagra widely publicized by the media. Viagra is believed to cure impotence in two thirds of men afflicted with this condition; however, only 5-10% of the men who would benefit from the medication actually seek out prescriptions. The remaining men who suffer from impotence can turn to self-injections and implants to restore their sexual capacity.
Physical Strength: The Myth That Sexual Activity is Debilitating for Older Adults
Another myth concerning aging and sexuality is the notion that "older people are so physically fragile that sex might hurt them" (Hammond, 1987, p. 22). Contrary to the belief that sexual activity is too strenuous for older adults, sex can improve their physical and psychological well-being. Sexual activity should be regarded as a form of exercise. No one would suggest that an older adult abandon other forms of exercise, such as walking or playing tennis. In addition, sexual activity can have therapeutic effects for seniors. By increasing cortisone output, sex can mitigate the pain associated with arthritis and can also decrease back pain. In comparison studies, sexually active seniors have been shown to need fewer tranquilizers and antidepressants than their nonactive counterparts (Hammond, 1987). Psychologically, an active sex life can boost self-esteem and facilitate a strong sense of self.
Related to the myth that sex can physically harm older individuals is the notion that sex can actually cause death to seniors. There is no evidence to support an increased risk of death during intercourse. The percentage of deaths that occur during sex is no greater than the percentage of deaths that occur while individuals are participating in any physical activity that requires the same amount of energy (Hammond, 1987).
Physical Appearance: The Myth That Older People are Unattractive
Hammond (1987) identified another myth pertaining to aging and sexuality, namely, the view that "older people are physically unattractive and, therefore, sexually undesirable" (p. 23). This myth is heavily reinforced by the media in American society.
Advertisements for dentures, hair dye, and makeup tell older individuals that the physical signs of aging must be covered. The underlying message is that youth is beautiful and advancing age is unattractive. The view that older individuals are unattractive is flatly false. Physical attractiveness is a subjective determination. What is deemed attractive by one individual is not necessarily considered to be attractive by someone else. In addition, sexual activity is certainly not restricted to people who society regards as attractive. Sexual behavior is practiced by persons of all shapes and sizes, and ages.
Homosexuality: The Myth of the Aging Gay Male
Another prevalent myth that pertains to both aging and sexuality is related to the aging male homosexual. Elderly homosexual men represent a common target for stereotyping, even among the gay subculture. "While the elderly have been generalized to be 'politically conservative,' 'senile,' 'fanatically religious,' and 'incapable of sexual activity or interest,' . . . older gay men have repeatedly been singled out as particularly pathetic figures" (Kelly, 1977, p. 329). The following profile has been assigned to aging gay men:
He no longer desires goes to bars, having lost his physical attractiveness and his sexual appeal to the young men he craves. He is over-sexed, but his sex life is very unsatisfactory. He has been unable to form a lasting relationship with a sexual partner, and he is seldom active sexually any more. When he does have sex it is usually in a "tearoom" (public toilet). He has disengaged from the gay world and acquaintances in it. He is retreating further and further into the "closet" . . . [and] he has become quite effeminate. (Kelly, 1977, p. 329)
However, the description above is a composite stereotype, ungrounded in reality.
To investigate the attitudes, stereotypes, and characteristics of older gay men, a two-year study of 241 gay men was conducted (Kelly, 1977). The men who served as participants ranged in age from 16 to 79. Data was collected utilizing questionnaires, interviews, and natural observation methods. Within this group, 30 men were over the age of 65. The data collected was then contrasted with the prevalent myths of the elderly homosexual man.
The belief that elderly gay men do not frequent bars was unfounded. Sixty-three percent of the older portion of the sample described themselves as bar-goers. Only 4% of the participants had been to a tearoom in the past six months, and half of them were under the age of 36. In addition, the sexual activity of the older respondents was reported to be highly satisfactory. Sexual desires and interest remained intact, and men preferred to be with partners around their own age (Kelly, 1977). Hence, regardless of sexual orientation, the pervasive myth of the sexless older adult is just that: a myth.
One characteristic of the composite stereotype was supported by the data (Kelly, 1977). Namely, older gay men were unlikely to be involved in a lasting relationship. A relationship pattern was discovered in which the liaisons of homosexual men increased with age until the age of 46 to 55. After 55 years old, the liaisons of homosexual men began to decrease. The two most common reasons given for the waning of relationships in later life were "the death of the loved one and the rejection of the notion of having a single life-long lover" (Kelly, 1977, p. 330)
Although the level of participation in the gay world was rated as low to moderate by most of the older respondents, not a single respondent over age 65 reported disengagement from the gay world. Contrary to the myth that gay men tend to retreat back into the closet as they age and renounce their connections to the gay culture, older men's associations with heterosexuals was found to decrease significantly with age. Lastly, the older respondents in this study did not typically describe themselves as effeminate and displayed a tendency to eschew such labels altogether. Only 12 of the 30 older respondents endorsed feminine self-identifications (Kelly, 1977).
Just as with heterosexual unions, the loss of a partner in a homosexual relationship can have devastating effects on the widowed partner. As stated by one interviewee:
I have no fear of growing old except that you face more loneliness than you do when you're young. I lost my lover when we looked forward to spending our retirement years together, going places, doing things together. Couldn't do it when we were working and then to have it all wiped away overnight. It left me with nobody and not much chance of finding anybody at this age. (Kelly, 1977, p. 330)
Aging and Social Contact: The Myth of the Isolated Older Adult
The isolation of the elderly is believed to extend beyond contact with relatives. Diminished or nonexistent social interaction is another stereotype frequently attributed to older persons. This myth is particularly salient among the urban elderly, individuals who reside in large cities. However, Cantor's (1975) examination of the social interactions of city-dwelling seniors revealed dynamic relationship patterns. "Over 80 percent 'sit and talk' together with neighbors either in front of the building or in parks or open spaces. Almost two-thirds have a visiting relationships with neighbors" (p. 26). In addition, many of the older persons in this study reported sharing meals with neighbors and identified their neighbors as close friends. Approximately two thirds of this sample reported monthly visits with their children.
Sokolovsky and Cohen (1981) designed an innovative study to measure social interactions among the urban elderly. Participants in the study were residents of 11 single-room occupancy hotels in Manhattan. A network analysis profile was utilized to analyze information regarding social interaction. Six forms of interaction were recorded: tenant - tenant, tenant - nontenant, tenant - kin, tenant - management, tenant - public agency of health care professional, and tenant - social institution. Each form of interaction was measured according to frequency, duration, intensity, and directional flow of the interaction. Results of this study provided further proof to reject the isolation myth. Very few participants were completely isolated. In fact, the majority of participants had created complex social networks in their communities. The number of social networks ranged from 0 to 26, with an average of 7.5 social contacts per individual. Seventy-three percent of the sample had formed social networks comprised of four or more individuals. Additionally, 44% of the social contacts made outside the hotels involved visits with relatives.
Aging and Older Women: Myths and Realities
In 1999, I circulated a questionnaire on older women's lives to psychologists throughout the Americas. One item on the survey concerned prevailing myths about older women. Responses to this open-ended question illuminated the different beliefs about women that persist in various countries. One myth cited by many respondents held that all older women are frail and in poor physical health. In reality, many older women are extremely vital and participate in vigorous activities. The assumption that older women are frail causes others to treat them as though they are delicate, fragile creatures, which may in turn undermine their self-esteem (Denmark, 1999).
Aging women's sexual needs and desires were minimized, as these women are often deemed asexual and unattractive to men. However, as referenced above, the notion that older women have lost their libido is certainly a myth. Older women may not necessarily be attractive to young men, but they continue to be admired by older men. Tales of romance between women and men persist even in nursing homes and retirement communities.
Another myth about older women is that they are focused solely on keeping families together. They are viewed as actively involved in the rearing of grandchildren and the caretaking of the entire family. The following excerpt from an Argentinian psychologist captures this sentiment: "Women are traditionally the nurturers and according to cultural tradition in Argentina are expected to sacrifice all for their families." However, although many older women are actively engaged in nurturing family members, they also participate in a wide variety of other pursuits. Older women can be found in all spheres of society--from colleges and universities, to the workforce, to political organizations. Maintaining strong family connections is often a priority for older women, but it is not the only role that older women play (Denmark, 1999).
There were contrasting opinions regarding the significance of aging for older women. Whereas some ascribe wisdom and experience to older women, others cite their reputation for being ignorant and having old-fashioned ideas. For example, one myth in the United States is that older women are "out of touch with the younger generations" and their ideas are relegated to be unimportant and irrelevant in today's society. In contrast, however, a respondent from Guyana stated that older women are deemed omnipotent and capable of anything. A myth described by a Canadian respondent was that older women are ignorant of medicine, economics, government, and education, whereas myths from Costa Rica and Brazil characterized older women as wise, sweet, kind, and concerned (Denmark, 1999). Some of these myths may actually reflect the reality of their lives, but it is unrealistic to paint a universal stereotypic portrait of older women.
In this article I have discussed many myths of aging. As noted, myths regarding the elderly cover every aspect of their lives, from mental health to physical health, life satisfaction, relationships with family members and friends, and sexuality. As the population of older persons continues to grow and expand, it is important to examine evidence before jumping to conclusions about their lives. The elderly, similar to any age cohort, are a heterogeneous population that cannot be adequately captured by any stereotype. Contrary to the prevailing myths, the portrait of the typical older adult supported by the research in this paper shows an older adult who is contented and happy, satisfied with life, in close contact with relatives, sexually active, and connected to social networks. As the population in the United States and the rest of the world continues to age, we must continue to refute negative myths and stereotypes.
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This article is based on a Psi Chi Distinguished Lecture presented by Dr. Denmark on March 22, 2002, during the Psi Chi Southeastern Regional Convention, held in conjunction with the 48th Annual Meeting of the Southeastern Psychological Association in Orlando, Florida.