Old is still gold: Debunking negative stereotypes about ageing

  • Seniors
  • Monday, 08 Oct 2018

Many senior citizens are embracing the concept of active ageing; some have even joined hiking groups and go trekking regularly. Photo: Filepic

Ageing conjures up a host of negative images – old people are seen as being frail, “past it”, over the hill, weak, dependent, slow and irrelevant. Because of such negative stereotypes, most people don’t want to be reminded that they’re growing “old”.

Negative stereotypes about ageing diminish the real value of older people, many of whom are leading active and productive lives.

Geriatricians from the Universiti Malaya Medical Centre (UMMC) set out to debunk these stereotypes through their campaign “Championing Life, Defying Ageing”, which celebrates the contributions of the elderly in society

The week-long campaign, launched by Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali yesterday, is to mark the International Day of the Older Person last Monday.

The campaign also hopes to change prevalent narratives about ageing and instead promote discourse about successful, active, positive and empowered ageing.

“Stereotypes of the elderly and the process of growing old are often misrepresented in negative narratives that portray the old as being frail and feeble, in poor health, forgetful, unattractive, sexless, slow, weak and in need of protection, depressed, lonely and so on.

“While some of these descriptions may reflect a small population of older persons who are vulnerable, they have coloured the view of younger people about ageing.

“We must debunk these myths as it can impact the elderly in many areas such as health services, employment, education and also the way they are treated by society,” says UMMC’s head of geriatrics Prof Shahrul Bahyah Kamaruzzaman.

Growing older does have its share of challenges; some people don’t age as well as others.

At advanced ages especially, chronic conditions such as diabetes, hypertension and dementia become increasingly common and can take its toll on mental, as well as physical, health.

University of Malaya Medical Centre Geriatric Unit head and consultant geriatrician Prof Dr Shahrul Bahyah Kamaruzzaman said the elderly are the most affected by muscle loss.
UMMC Geriatric Unit head and consultant geriatrician Prof Dr Shahrul Bahyah Kamaruzzaman.

However, better knowledge about the process of ageing will provide a deeper understanding of how ageing affects the health of older persons and will go a long way in disease presentation and can promote earlier screening, prevention and better management of geriatric syndromes such as falls, dementia, frailty and incontinence.

The UMMC campaign, which ended on Thursday, included an exhibition about the hospital’s multidisciplinary care for the elderly and ways for people to age better.

There were also talks and workshop sessions throughout the three-day campaign that highlighted and discussed relevant topics on ageing for both older people as well as caregivers.

“We want to celebrate older people, their contributions as well as resilience, and also encourage further empowerment

“Everywhere we look, we see icons of ageing around us. For me, it is my parents and my aunt and the community around me, who define ageing gracefully and inspire me.

“This year, our campaign is even more pertinent as we have two icons of ageing – prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir (Mohamad) who is the oldest premier in the world and Tun Dr Siti Hasmah, both of whom are inspirational.

“I no longer have patients coming to me with as much complaints because they say ‘if (Dr) Mahathir can do it (so can they)’. They have challenged the average Malaysian’s view of ageing.

“Although we cannot fight the silver tsunami (population ageing) affecting our population, we can turn the tide on ageing misconceptions and myths that are prevalent among us,” says Dr Shahrul.

If a 93-year-old can clock in at work everyday, what's our excuse? Photo: Filepic
'Icons of ageing' like Dr M have challenged the average Malaysian’s view of ageing. Photo: Filepic

Worldwide, a growing body of research is discovering that how we perceive growing old has a direct effect on how we age.

A study by researchers at the Yale School of Public Health and the University of California, in the United States found that older individuals who were subliminally exposed to positive messages about ageing showed long-term improvements in self-image, strength and balance.

The study, which focused on 100 older people aged between 61 and 99, found that the benefits of positive reinforcements lasted weeks past the study’s intervention sessions which highlighted how positive stereotypes can achieve lasting benefits as we age.

Says Prof Shahrul, “Positive descriptions about ageing which are now being heard in certain populations need to be the voice of the older person. From today, we don’t want tearful reminders of what old age is.

“Instead, we need to play up inspiring discourse about ageing. The perceptions about the elderly and ageing in the media needs to change.

“We need to see more positive and empowered examples of ageing that look at the older person as relevant, valid and contributing members of society,” she says.

Old age, she stresses, should be synonymous with activity, autonomy and empowerment.

“It is important to keep moving as this will improve not only physical fitness but mental fitness too. Old people must have a voice – their opinions matter and must be heard.

“They should be an example to the younger generation. Older people must have the autonomy to decide on how, where and who they live with. They must be empowered to make decisions that determine their life and health.

“Social participation is important too as it allows the older person to be mentally fit.

“It will also help prevent feelings of loneliness and isolation and avoid depression and even reduce the risk dementia,” says Shahrul, adding that increased awareness about ageing will empower society, both the young and old, to make better lifestyle choices.

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