As we age, becoming weaker, slower, and immobile is our fate… FALSE! By: Gabriela Corrigan

Aging is often associated with a person who has lost most of their strength and mental and physical functioning abilities. A decline in muscle mass and strength among older adults is one reasons why the stereotype of older adults exists that states they are weak, slow, and immobile. I became a CNA this past summer, and now I currently work with older adults of all types at a skilled nursing facility. I work with people who have injuries and are recovering though rehab, and I also work with long-term residents. Not only do I love my job and the residents I work with, but I have also learned a lot about the aging process and the older population. In this paper I will asses four articles that support or disprove the stereotype that as older adults age they become weaker, slower, and less able to function properly.

Many types of pain and inflammation such as chronic musculoskeletal pain are common among older aging adults. This study wanted to test the hypothesis that the onset of widespread pain like chronic musculoskeletal discomfort among older adults is often associated with a decrease in healthy pleasurable aging (Wilkie, Tajar, & McBeth, 2013). This study contained 2,949 adults 50 years and older who participated in assessments of their health throughout the study every 3 years for a total of 6 years. This study was a population based prospective cohort study.

Participants were given a baseline questionnaire at the beginning of the study, another questionnaire 3 years after the study had started, and again 6 years into the study. In these questionnaires the participants were asked if they had experienced any pain for one day or longer in the past month and if so, they were asked to indicate where on the body. Based on the participant’s pain reports, they were categorized into three groups: no pain, regional pain, or widespread pain. Regional pain was defined as pain felt in a specific area on the body, where widespread pain was characterized by pain felt in the left and right sides of the body, along with above and below the waist and in the axial skeleton (Wilkie et al., 2013). The study found that in the first questionnaire 29.6% participants had no pain, 26.4% had widespread pain, and 43.9% had regional pain. These percentages increased at the 3 year check up along with the 6 year one as well. Women were more likely to report widespread pain than men causing their healthy ageing scores to be lower than men’s across the 6 year time period. Overall, the mean healthy aging index scores decreased by 6.2% over the 6 year time period of all the participants. Across the 6 year time period, a total of 31.1% of participants experienced the onset of widespread pain, which is associated with a significant decrease in healthy aging among older adults in general (Wilkie et al., 2013). This study concluded that among older people, the onset of widespread pain is associated with unhealthy aging, and is experienced by everyone as they age. In all 3 pain states, a conclusion was drawn that in general the participant’s aging process as a whole became less healthy across the 6 year period (Wilkie et al., 2013).

This study focused on the pain felt by the participants over a 6 year time period. Pain felt in any area of the body by older adults can really affect someone’s ability to enjoy life. These pains are not only undesirable, but they affect the overall ability someone has to function properly without help. This study found that women in general experience a bigger increase in the pain they feel as they age over a 6 year time period, but men also experience this decrease in their overall health as they age (Wilkie et al., 2013). This study supports the stereotype that as adults age, they may become weaker and less able to function in activities of daily living.

Another article explored the association between perceptions and opinions of aging and how they can affect cognitive functioning in older adults. This longitudinal study’s purpose was to research the effects of having a negative perception of aging and what it could do to cognitive functioning in older adults (Robertson, Bellinda, Kallimanis, & Kenny, 2016). There were 5,896 individuals 50 years and older who participated in this study. The individuals completed several questionnaires that asked them questions about the ageing process and the expectations they had about their own future aging process. The questionnaire was comprised of some negative perceptions and stereotypes of aging along with some positive perceptions of aging. Participants were asked to rate their level of agreement to these negative and positive statements. The participants were also assessed through skills like verbal fluency, immediate and delayed memory, prospective memory, and self-rated memory (Robertson et al., 2016). These items were assessed to measure the cognitive function of the participants throughout the study. This study took place over the course of 2 years, where each individual was assessed at the beginning of the study and again after 2 years.

The study found that those individuals who had negative perceptions about aging showed worse cognitive functioning after 2 years compared to those who had positive perceptions of aging, who had better results of cognitive functioning after 2 years. Those who had negative perceptions about aging showed declines in verbal fluency and memory over time as well (Robertson et al., 2016). Cognitive abilities and functioning is a significant aspect of aging. A delay in cognitive functioning can result in unsuccessful, unpleasant, and faster aging among older adults. Also, a delay in cognitive functioning among older adults can lead to brain damage/loss causing the individual to be slower with executive functions and daily living tasks. This study supports the stereotype that older adults are slower, weaker, and less able to function properly. This study supported the stereotype by explaining how adults can loose their cognitive abilities and physical abilities due to aging. This study specifically focused on how the human mind has a lot of power as we age. The study describes how adults who have a negative outlook on their future aging process will experience a faster decline in executive functions compared to those who have a very optimistic opinion about successful aging (Robertson et al., 2016).

I have personally experienced this phenomena working with older adults as a CNA. I have taken care of many different people who have very different circumstances. Some people are only in my facility for a couple of weeks, while others are there for much longer or even for the rest of their life. Working with rehab patients, I have personally seen how a negative state of mind can significantly affect the overall healing process. For example, I have experienced patients who have an injury or illness that causes them to be completely dependent on our care for a certain amount of time. Some people look at this type of situation as motivation to get better while others do the opposite. I have experienced patients who unfortunately pass away while under our care, just because they mentally refused to get better. Unfortunately this type of situation happens more often than it should because people tend to feel hopeless as they age and they see injuries as major setbacks. But I have also experienced circumstances where patients have come into our care because of an injury and they have left within weeks because they are so determined to get better as soon as possible; and they do. These occurrences also apply to long-term patients. People who have essentially given up on life because of their circumstances can sometimes pass away within weeks of this mental decision. Although it is very sad, I have experienced this type of situation as well and I have a very clear understanding of how powerful the mind is, especially while aging.

Although the idea that aging is associated with health problems and a lower ability to function properly is sometimes true, the stereotype is not always true. Another study looked at the relationship between a positive novel intervention group that promotes psychological well being in older adults and how participation impacted overall health and functioning in older adults. This study included 134 men and women 60 years or older in the US. The individuals participated in an 8-week program that consisted of 90-minute group sessions designed to teach participants to identify and appreciate positive experiences that occur throughout life (Friedman, Ruini, Foy, Jaros, Sampson, & Ryff, 2017). The first couple sessions focused on identifying what a positive experience was, while later sessions focused on techniques to restore and sustain health and well-being. The program included in class activities, at-home behavioral assignments, and diaries where the participants could record their daily positive experiences. Before and after the program, the participants were given questionnaires that assessed physical and mental health of the individual.

The results of this study found that a positive interaction program for older adults yielded positive effects in promoting psychological well-being (Friedman et al., 2017). Because a decline in overall health is often connected to aging, older adults frequently fall into the trap of thinking that this is process is inevitable. However this study showed that even the slightest increases in positivity can constitute significant improvements in the quality of life of an aging adult (Friedman et al., 2017). This study does not support the stereotype that older adults are slower, weaker, and less able to function. This study proves how just small efforts to enhance ones life can improve cognitive functioning, quality of life and the entire process of aging, resulting in healthier and independent older adults.

Another study I found reported the effects that volunteering has among older adults. The purpose of the study was to compare volunteers to nonvolunteers among Israeli Jewish adults ages 75 to 94 (Shmotkin, Blumstein, & Modan, 2003). The participants were given a questionnaire at the beginning of the study asking to explain any volunteer activities the person was participating in. Other behaviors like physical activity, watching TV and other activities of daily living of the individual were also kept in mind (Shmotkin et al., 2003). The participants were then studied and various differences were detected between the volunteers and nonvolunteers. The results of this study stated that the volunteers were much more active in general than the nonvolunteers in all outlets of life including physical activity. The volunteers were subjectively healthier, by exhibiting happiness, higher cognitive functions, and had fewer depressive symptoms. These individuals also evaluated their lives more positively (Shmotkin et al., 2003).

This study does not support the stereotype that older adults become weaker and less able to function with age. This study actually states that older adults who are more involved with behaviors such as volunteering are healthier and display less symptoms of depression and exhibit a slower onset of cognitive failure (Shmotkin et al., 2003).

As the stereotype of older adults being less active, weaker, slower, and less able to function is proven to be true some of the time, I have learned through research and experience that this is not everyone’s fate as we age. The more physically active and positive a person is with regards to the aging process, the more likely they are to experience successful aging with much less cognitive delays. However this unfortunately is not always the case, as some older adults experiencing a fast paced decline in physical and mental health causing them to be weaker, slower, and less able to function as they age.

References

Friedman, E. M., Ruini, C., Foy, R., Jaros, L., Sampson, H., Ryff, C. D. (2017). Lighten UP! A Community-based Group Intervention to Promote Psychological Well-being in Older Adults. Aging & Mental Health. 1360-7863. Retrieved February 6, 2017.

Robertson, D. A., Bellinda, L., Kallimanis, K., Kenny, R. A. (2016). Negative Perceptions of Aging Predict Longitudinal Declilne in Cognitive Function. Psychology and Aging. V31(1) 71-81. Retrieved February 6, 2017.

Shmotkin, D., Blumstein, T., Modan, B. (2003). Beyond Keeping Active: Concomitants of Being a Volunteer in Old-Old Age. Psychology and Aging. V18(3) 602-607. Retrieved February 6, 2017.

Wilkie, R., Tajar, A., McBeth, J. (2013). The Onset of Widespread Musculoskeletal Pain is Associated with a Decrease in Healthy Ageing in Older People: A Population-Based Prospective Study. PLOS ONE. (8) e59858. Retrieved February 6, 2017.

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