Tuesday, July 31, 2012
One of the greatest tragedies in American culture is the way families tend to institutionalize or simply ostracize older family members because of ageist views and misperceptions that they are difficult and require excessive care. As Sue and Sue (2008) discuss, many people believe older adults have a higher incidence of mental illness and dementia and can no longer function as valuable members of society. One of the most personally troubling aspects of this institutionalization is that it separates older adults from their younger family members which increases ageist perceptions.
Many older adults, especially those in their 80s were born during World War II when food and other supplies were rationed. This has caused some of them to live an extremely frugal life, saving anything that can be saved and being careful not to squander money or resources. I have an older family member like this. She is so frugal, even though she has far more money than all of the rest of the family put together, she's always saving for that proverbial rainy day. This attitude creates somewhat of a chasm between her and the younger generations because they simply think she's crazy. However, her actions are a direct result of being raised in fear of not having enough. This attitude is the antithesis of today's younger generations, many of whom will spend their paycheck on one pair of designer shoes or jeans. Even adults in their 30s purchase houses they cannot afford, and live paycheck to paycheck, never saving money.
Situations like this create ageist perceptions and somewhat of a catch 22; as families ostracize their older members, the younger generations perceive them as unreachable, or difficult to relate to, deepening the generational gap between the younger and older family members. As the gap widens, the younger generation does not seek the companionship or wisdom of the older generation, and the chasm continues to widen.
Older adults are somewhat more predisposed to physical challenges related to ageing which include both chronic and acute, even life threatening conditions (Sue & Sue, 2008). Unfortunately, these physical challenges contribute to ageism and the notion that old people are useless and take excessive amounts of attention and care. In this culture, institutions have replaced the family's care (Pruchno, 2001). Unfortunately, the lack of systems in place that allow family to be cared for within the family home is common.
In support of developing systems that help in the care of older family members, Bytheway (2005) suggests gerontological research may need a shift in the current paradigm that involves interviewing older adults. Designing research to empirically review ageing processes, may serve to correct an antiquated system that contributes to rather than decreases ageist notions. In my estimation, understanding the processes is a more holistic way to understand the end result. I would agree interviewing older adults is not the only way to understand the aging process.
As I mentioned above, the contemporary tradition of placing older generations into institutionalized care contributes to the widened gap between younger and older generations when they begin to exhibit aging. Rather than keeping these members of society as valuable and contributing, it is not uncommon to send them off to live amongst themselves, separating them from the younger members of their families as well as making them less accessible (Pruchno, 2001). Sadly, ageism has a significant effect on longevity (McGuire, Klein, & Chen, 2008).
Implications in Counseling
Generational worldviews, such as the one example above tend to ostracize older populations. When working with an individual like my elder family member, it would be important to hear and acknowledge her perceptions, rather than trying to make her see things in another way. Worldviews, as we know, are fundamental lenses that color the way we perceive everything. Especially with older adults, it is important to validate and support the idea that they continue to be a valued member of society. Although counselors may be one or two generations younger than the older adult, they must work toward understanding the tragic nature of such devaluing, and aim for infusing meaning and purpose into their lives. According to Ryff & Singer (1998), having meaning and purpose in life contributes to psychological health and happiness. Certainly, at the latter stage of life, these are welcome positive human attributes.
Ultimately, it is important to reflect on personal bias that leaves many counselors unwilling or at least reluctant, to work with older individuals. As mentioned by Sue and Sue (2008), "the elderly population is underserved and little understood" (456). Just as with any other culture, counselors are expected to create in-roads by which they can better understand the challenges of ageing.
Bytheway, B. (2005). Ageism and Age Categorization. Journal of Social Issues, 61(2), 361-374. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-4560.2005.00410.x
McGuire, S. L., Klein, D. A., & Chen, S. (2008). Ageism revisited: A study measuring ageism in East Tennessee, USA. Nursing & Health Sciences, 10(1), 11-16. doi: 10.1111/j.1442-2018.2007.00336.x
Palmore, E. (2005). Three decades of research on ageism. Generations, 29, 87-90.
Pruchno, R. (2001). The Complex Nature of Ageism: What Is It? Who Does It? Who Perceives It? The Gerontologist, 41(5), 576-577. doi: 10.1093/geront/41.5.576
Ryff, C. D., & Singer, B. (1998). The contours of positive human health. Psychological Inquiry, 9, 1-28.