How Older People Describe Other Older People Affects Their Healing

A common phrase that one finds in religions and spiritual teachings goes, “What we focus on, we become.” The idea behind this is that the people in our environments – and more important, what we think of them and how we see them – strongly affects how we see ourselves. For example, if you tend to view the people around you as primarily victims of the actions of others, then over time you tend to view yourself as overly affected by the actions of other people, and begin to take on the role of “victim” yourself.

I wasn’t completely convinced of the wisdom of this saying until I started to see it validated in scientific studies. For example, one study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that people who catch sight of someone who is overweight tend to overeat themselves immediately afterwards. This effect was even more pronounced when the subjects carried negative stereotypes about overweight people. The researchers theorized that when people saw others that they regarded as overweight and thus thought of negatively, they experienced a temporary decrease in their own commitments to eating healthily and maintaining their weight.

Similar studies have shown that obesity can be to some extent “contagious,” and spreads via social networks, both in real-life social settings and on the Internet. Whether it is due to mimicking the appearance or behavior of people around them or to some other factors, people who have frequent contact with people who are obese have a higher risk of becoming obese themselves. Now a new study indicates that the same “monkey see, monkey do” phenomenon may be present in older people, depending on the ways that they see – and describe – other older people.

If you’re over 60, do you see others your age as “spry,” or “decrepit?”

In a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers followed the medical history of over 600 older adults who had no disabilities at the start of the study, but developed one over the 11 years of the study. The scientists were interested in the factors that influenced their ability to recover from these disabilities, including the holding of negative stereotypes about other older people…and thus subconsciously, about themselves.

Study participants were asked at the beginning of the study to list five words that, for them, first came to their minds when they thought of people their own age. Some, as in the subtitle above, described their peers as “spry” or “lively,” while others described the same age group as “decrepit” or “failing.” Similarly, some participants’ first thoughts about the mental states of people their age were to think of them as “wise,” while others thought of them as “senile.”

What the researchers found was that people who hold positive stereotypes in their minds for people their own age were 44% more likely to recover from serious disabilities than those who had more negative stereotypes of the same age group. In a very real sense, when “what they saw” in someone their own age was being “decrepit,” that is “what they became.”

Stereotypes can be changed

Study author Becca Levy, associate professor at Yale University, said of the findings: “In our culture, the negative age stereotypes tend to predominate. Questioning those… and bolstering the positive ones could potentially help people when they experience a disability.” The researchers are not sure what the cause is of this association between negative stereotypes of the elderly and lowered ability to recover from disabilities, only that the association exists. They theorize that older people who have positive stereotypes about people their own age have a “better buffer against outside stressors,” meaning that they are more likely to eat healthy foods, to take their medications as they should, and to get sufficient exercise.

She suggested that those who hold negative stereotypes of older people can do something about it: “”It’s a skill and can be improved.” Older individuals can train themselves to become more aware of negative stereotypes of the elderly when they encounter them in movies and on TV and in other media, and begin to question those stereotypes. She also recommended finding more positive role models among people of the same age group, and spending more time with them.

This makes sense to me, given the saying that I started this article with. If you’re spending more time with people you respect and think highly of, the rule is still “what you focus on, you become.” It’s just that in this case the more positive the people you’re spending time with and focusing on, the more positive you become yourself.

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Juliette Siegfried, MPH

Juliette Siegfried, MPH, has been involved in health communications since 1991. Shortly after obtaining her Master of Public Health degree, she began her career at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Juliette now lives in Europe, where she launched ServingMed(.)com, a small medical writing and editing business for health professionals all over the world.

Juliette's resume, facebook: juliette.siegfriedmph, linkedin: juliettes, (+31) 683 673 767

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