Shannon Proudfoot, Canwest News Service
Published: Monday, February 09, 2009
Living with a senior heightens younger people's anxiety and prejudice about old age, but working with an elderly person reduces it, new Canadian research suggests.
"Living with older family members, it's probably the case that the older family members need assistance in some way, whereas when you're working with older colleagues, they will tend to be seen as more functional, healthier, more capable," says Linda Allan, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan, and co-author of the study. "They're seen as more equivalent to you."
The study, published in the journal Educational Gerontology, involved about 100 undergraduates aged 17 to 49, one-third of whom had close regular contact with someone over 65. Participants answered questions about their knowledge of aging, their anxiety about getting older and their attitudes toward the elderly, measured by how strongly they agreed with statements such as, "old people complain more than other people do" and "most old people should not be allowed to renew their drivers licences."
Those with more knowledge about aging were less anxious about getting older themselves, the researchers found, while those who felt more anxiety about aging also had more ageist attitudes or prejudice.
Younger adults who worked with older people had less anxiety and fewer ageist attitudes, but those who lived with elderly relatives felt more of both, Allan says.
For younger adults living with an elderly relative, caregiver exhaustion and a frightening glimpse of the future could be influencing their attitudes, says Dr. Robert Butler, CEO of the New York-based International Longevity Center and the person widely credited with coining the term "ageism" in 1968.
"I can well understand the anxiety part, particularly if one is living with an older person who develops Alzheimer's disease and you're a relative and you even imagine you might be genetically heir to the same problem," he says.
The baby boomers will soon swell the ranks of the 65-plus crowd and force some change in ageist attitudes, but that won't solve the problem, says Colin Milner, CEO of the Vancouverbased International Council on Active Aging. A quick glance at the "anti-aging" products crowding drugstore shelves reveals our society's desire to avoid the inevitable effects of time, he says--at least to cover them up.
"If you're looking at someone who's running a marathon, your perception of aging is probably going to be very different," says Milner. "But if you're looking at an individual who is having a hard time financially, physically, mentally and so forth, you may be saying to yourself, 'I don't want to be like that.' "