Letter of the week: Culture affects whether we see the elderly as ‘slow’ or ‘wise’

I was sad when I read about the episode of ageism recounted by Ms Ong Seok Khim (Made to feel I didn’t belong on the dance floor because of my age, July 26).

In a recent community talk on healthy aging, I asked the participants (aged 50 and above) to list the first three words that come to mind when they think of an older person.

The three most common words were “slow”, “forgetful” and “wisdom”.

According to Dr Becca Levy, author of Breaking The Age Code, the most commonly answered word for that question in Japan is “wisdom”, and “memory loss” in the United States.

Age stereotypes are influenced by culture and tend to be established early in life, and precede changes in health outcomes and functioning.

Dr Levy’s research has found that people with more positive age beliefs live an average of 7½ years longer, after controlling for age, gender, socioeconomic status, loneliness and functional health.

Research has also shown that older people with more positive age beliefs were more likely to fully recover from severe disability, were less likely to develop dementia and walked faster than those with negative perceptions of old age.

More recent studies of cohorts of older adults have reported that negative age stereotypes are associated with accelerated cellular aging.

A study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society reported that older people with more positive age beliefs are also more likely to think that older people sick with Covid-19 should go for treatment, while those with negative age beliefs tend to feel they should forgo treatment

Old age can be a fluid social construct.

There is immense value when age is viewed in a positive light, even more so in an aging population like ours.

I am glad I no longer see our aging population described as a “silver tsunami”.

For Singapore, there is certainly sizeable social capital in the large number of healthy and better-educated older adults, come 2040 and beyond.

Ideas on how we can better realize this capital should be welcomed.

Wee Shiou Liang (Dr.)

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