Bob Knight is an expert in ageing. He spent almost 30 years studying gerontology at the University of Southern California before relocating to the University of Southern Queensland to be an educator and researcher in this field, which continues to grow in importance as Australia’s population ages. He has a PhD in clinical psychology from Indiana University and as the author of books including Psychotherapy with Older Adults and the editor of Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, Knight is firmly across what it means to be a senior from an empirical research perspective. That’s why he’s keen to set the record straight on a number of misconceptions about what it means to be a senior citizen.
Speaking with Aged Care Insite, Knight dispelled several pervasive myths about the lives of the mature aged, starting with one of the commonly held clichés.
MYTH #1: Older people are sad, cranky, and crotchety
One of the things we know about later life is that as people get older, the balance of positive and negative emotion skews more towards the positive. The group that scores the highest on measures of sadness and depressed mood is people in their 20s, and then that tends to go down across adult life, at least up into the 60s and 70s, and then there’s a slight upturn, but never quite back to the 20-year-old level.
We tend to think of older adults as being depressed and sad. I think it’s just part of our general social stereotyping about older adults. And perhaps a little bit of projection. I think because we don’t have a particularly positive attitude about ageing, some people have also suggested that because as you get chronologically older there’s sort of a greater expectation that you’re getting close to the end of life. That makes younger people thinking about ageing sad, so they assume older adults themselves must be sad.
MYTH #2: Older people are not interested in physical relationships
There’s a general resistance of thinking about older people as fully sexual beings, and I think it’s often surprising to people when surveys come out that show that people are still sexually active up into their 60s, 70s, 80s and beyond. There seems to be a natural tendency of people not to want to think about their parents, and I guess by extension, their grandparents as having sex and being sexually active, and then that kind of generalises to older people as a whole.
There’s quite a bit of survey data showing that sexual activity continues. I’ve done psychotherapy with older adults throughout my life, and sexuality is one of the things we often talk about.
If you’re with the same partner as you’ve always had, then there’s no particular reason for sexuality to die out just because you’re getting older. I think that unless one half has outlived their partner or has gotten divorced along the way, we see couples continuing to be sexually active and wanting physical affection and contact as part of their lives. A lot of my clients say that nothing’s a sin after 60!
MYTH #3: All old people are lonely
It turns out that when you do research the group that feels the loneliest is young people in their 20s, and that older adults are not necessarily more lonely than middle-aged people.
Another line of research suggests that older adults often have a smaller number of people in their regular social contacts or in their close social network, but at the same time, people continue to be happy and satisfied with life. We tend to, starting around age 30 or so, as we settle into full-on adult roles in life, start trimming our social contacts and our social networks. People have smaller networks but what remains is the people they actually feel close to emotionally.
There’s some continuation of that as people move into later life. The networks may be smaller but they’re composed of the people they’re the closest to and who provide them with the most emotional support. So loneliness is not as big of a problem as we tend to assume.
MYTH #4: People in retirement homes are inactive and don’t get around much
Generally speaking, at any one time, only about 5–10 per cent of the older adult population is living in retirement homes. But I think because they’re settings that only have older people in them, and because a lot of the media coverage of things that go on in later life often centre around issues and problems with aged care, when you think of older adults, that’s the first thing you tend to think of, and they kind of overlook the much larger number of older adults still living in age-integrated settings and regular neighborhoods.
MYTH #5: No one wants to end up in an aged-care facility
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It’s an individual’s decision. I think some people, for a variety of reasons, really like to be in a more age-segregated setting and be around people their own age, and like some of the activities and regular interactions that come about in those settings. Other people prefer to be in an age-integrated environment or continue living in the place they’ve always lived in. On the whole, it’s a relatively small percentage of people who prefer age-segregated living, but it’s an important aspect of our society and certainly a valid choice for people to make.
As parents and children talk about such things, it’s good to kind of step back and think about why you want your parents to be in a retirement-living situation and what their preferences and wants are; and have a more open conversation about it than I think is always the case.
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