Frail or sturdy? Seniors decide what they want to be

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James M. Berklan, McKnight's Editor
James M. Berklan, McKnight's Editor
If you're like me, you're a big believer in the saying “Attitude determines altitude.” If you're in the eldercare business, this should become embedded in your mind — for the good of those on your watch.

An awful lot of research crosses my desk on any given day. That's why when something sticks in the mind for more than a few weeks, it's safe to say it's remarkable. That is how I characterize the work of Becca Levy, which I first became aware of shortly before Christmas.

An associate professor of epidemiology at Yale University, Levy has worked for several decades studying how seniors' attitudes affect their ability to deal with disabilities. Her most recent update appears in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

In brief, she's found that people who subscribe to negative aging stereotypes (“the older you get, the more helpless or useless you'll be,” etc.), are more likely they are to suffer memory loss, poor physical function and even early death.

On the other hand, when seniors view themselves as being more likely to have wisdom, self-realization and general satisfaction in old age, they are essentially more liable to “will” themselves healthy.

In fact, a positive bias makes seniors 44% more likely to fully recover from some disabling condition, Levy and colleagues found. She also reported in 2002 that individuals with positive age stereotypes lived 7.5 years longer than those without them.

Researchers and reviewers agree that more study is needed. But they openly express confidence that a cause-and-effect dynamic exists.

Positive aging stereotypes are associated with individuals eating better, exercising more, following up with physicians better and stopping smoking more often. Seniors also feel a better sense of control and self-efficacy when they bring positive biases to the table.

How does this pertain to you, the senior caregiver? It's simple: Realize how profoundly you can affect your residents' outlook on aging, and, therefore, their lives in general. Help them build self-esteem and a sense of self-worth.

Be cautious with the tone of voice you use around them, and maintain a positive attitude about aging in general. Give your residents your full attention and work hard to avoid using loaded expressions and phrases that cast aging in a negative light.

And then when you go home, keep up the positive attitude. Psychologists note that impressions of aging and the aging condition are formed very strongly early on.

Today's child who wrinkles her nose at the thought of, well, getting wrinkles, slowing down or becoming less useful in old age could be creating a path to unnecessary disability, or worse.

Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.