Don't Judge a Book by Its Cover: Aging Bodies Often House Strong Minds

Adult children are right to be aware of their parents’ physical and mental changes since there’s no way to stop the aging process. However, as a columnist on caregiving and a forum moderator, I’m seeing something very scary happening far too often. Ageism is overtaking common sense and respect.

The fact that someone is over 65, and perhaps has arthritis and controlled high blood pressure, does not make this person cognitively unstable. Dementia doesn’t necessarily step in even after – gasp! – age 70.

We read the statistics and yes, they are frightening. Half of us will likely develop dementia by age 85. Yet, that still leaves half of us who won’t. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the estimated lifetime risk for Alzheimer's, specifically at age 65, was one in six (17 percent) for women and one in 11 (9 percent) for men. That is bad, however that still leaves a lot of elders with brains that are fairly well intact.

Need for awareness

Making noise about our aging population's Alzheimer’s risk is necessary because funding for research is desperately needed. Funding only comes with awareness.

If Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia aren’t stopped, or at least the rate drastically reduced, by 2050 most health care systems will be decimated, to say nothing of the families that are left in the wake. So I have no argument with awareness programs and the constant stream of studies that we see coming forward. In fact, I write about the need for clinical trial volunteers regularly.

Don't let ageism skew common sense and respect

Balance is the issue. I’d like to see more common sense and respect for the choices of our aging population with an awareness that ageism can be a subtle bias.

If people in their 30s lose track of food stored in their refrigerator the excuse is that they are too busy to tend to the chore of cleaning out the fridge. If this happens to someone over 50, the thinking goes that this person must be developing early dementia. Another example is "gapping out." If a younger person forgets a word, they are stressed. If an older person does the same thing, their mind is going.

Too much emphasis on the negative aspects of aging has encouraged society to believe that all older people are on the verge of dementia and a drain on families and the economy rather than a treasured resource of wisdom and experience.

Yes, aging brains think differently. Recall slows and those frustrating times when a word escapes the aging brain become more frequent. Aging bodies may become more prone to disease, causing these little cognitive slips to arouse even more suspicion among family members.

The adult children fret and worry. Maybe mom needs assisted living. Maybe dad needs a nursing home. Well, maybe so. However, maybe mom and dad are really okay mentally and they simply need more help around the house. Maybe their recall is slower but perhaps their fluid memory gained from life experience could leave their children in the dust.

Researchers from the School of Business Administration at the University of California, Riverside, measured aging volunteers’ decision making ability over their entire lifespan. Using two difference types of intelligence - fluid and crystallized – they found that experience and acquired knowledge from a lifetime of decision-making often offset the declining ability to learn new information.

Lifestyle choices such as people who choose to practice tai chi can offset or even reverse cognitive decline due to aging. Challenging hobbies, learning new languages, staying physically active and choosing to eat a healthy diet can also make a difference. Some people simply have the “right” genes.

My point is not to take away from awareness that physical and cognitive decline can signal a need for help from family members. My point is that while respect is vital even if dementia is present, respect for the right to make personal choices is just as vital for all aging people.

Don’t talk down to aging people. Don't assume that because your parent has momentarily forgotten the name of a friend, or because a quart of milk has expired, she can no longer decide what she wants out of her life.

Think about how you will want to be treated in 20 years. Do you want to be talked down to and treated like an overgrown child? I doubt it. Start out with respect for your aging loved ones' rights and you’ll be heading in the right direction when it comes to offering help for those whom you love. You'll also be demonstrating to your children how you'd like to be treated as you age.

Carol Bradley Bursack
Meet Our Writer
Carol Bradley Bursack

Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. This experience provided her with her foundation upon which she built her reputation as a columnist, author, blogger, and consultant. Carol is as passionate about supporting caregivers work through the diverse challenges in their often confusing role as she is about preserving the dignity of the person needing care. Find out much more about Carol at