Stereotypes predict the odds of rehab success

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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.” Eldercare professionals should have this embedded in their minds — for their good and the benefit of those they care for.

One simply has to turn to the work of researcher Becca Levy, Ph.D., to see why it's so important. An associate professor of epidemiology at Yale University, Levy has toiled for several decades studying how seniors' attitudes affect their ability to deal with disabilities. Her most recent update appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association late last year.

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 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 other words, seniors can become what they think.

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 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? 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 in children's lives.

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