Dr. Patricia Farrell on Medika Life

“Old” Is Both a State of Mind and a Matter of Mental and Physical Health

As we chalk up our birthdays, some of us will be seen as "old,” while others may remain vital and mentally adept as Norman Lear.

Today, we have to ask what “old” means and who is old and who isn’t. The answer may seem apparent, but that’s not a good guess to make because age, health, and “old” are now coming to the fore in research.

Researchers published a study that shows people with severe mental illness are almost twice as likely to have more than one physical illness. This shows how important it is to look at how mental and physical health are connected. The study looked at data from 194,123 psychiatric patients around the world and compared them to 7,660,590 people in control groups. But this study, while highly relevant to the topic, didn’t address the consequences of cultural notions of “old” even though we know this has gained increased fluidity in recent years.

On a personal level, people from different cultures have different ideas about how to deal with getting older. However, people from Mainland China, India, Malaysia, Russia, and New Zealand thought that society was neutral or slightly positive about getting older. All cultures agree that getting older means losing your physical attractiveness, finding it harder to do everyday things, and learning new things. In Eastern societiespeople were a little kinder to older people.

It is expected that there will be 94.7 million older people in the United States alone by 2060. This is almost three times as many as there were in 2000. Which of them will be viewed as “old,” and how will the concept of “old” have changed by then? Is a psychology professor correct when he said, “the pandemic helped reinforce images of older people as sick, frail, and isolated — as people who aren’t like the rest of us” or is he failing to see that we have stoked some areas of business against older adults and rooted them out of the workplace because they were too old for the techno climate? Of course, salaries always play a role, and it’s not necessarily technology but age and health insurance premiums that are the driving forces here.

But finance may play an emerging role in how we view older adults (stop saying “old people”) because we note that the age at which Social Security will be re-aligned is aiming at 70 years. Money is always an issue in most things, and here it can have a dramatic impact on both the self-esteem and the financial situation of older adults.

Did you know that the Social Security disability system (which views 55 as “advanced age”) has a quiet little secret? They don’t believe anyone over 55 can find a job if they’ve lost theirs, and any health impairment may be acceptable for benefits. I know this from personal experience as a prior medical consultant for them. It seems Social Security has bought into this type of discrimination, too.

Not that I’m advocating for people to work longer, but if they are healthy and fit, why should they be sent to Coventry at 65? Even France is looking at pushing their retirement age up from 62 to 65, and people there are up in arms. They get three weeks of vacation anyway, far better than the American worker. Yes, there are exceptions to this vacation policy in the US. Some companies provide three weeks of paid vacation after ten years of working with them and after eleven years an employee is considered “fully vested,” meaning they are eligible for retirement benefits if a pension system exists at that corporation.

The age myths are corroding the potential in cultures that need both the experience, the wisdom, and the talents of their older citizens. Different older people have different levels of physical and mental ability. Some 80-year-olds are as strong and smart as 20-year-olds, while others may need a lot of help with basic tasks like eating and dressing. Policy should be made to improve the functional ability of all older people, whether they are strong and independent or need a lot of help. A very small number of older people need help from others. Older people make important contributions to their families and communities.

Age does not mean someone is less capable. This is even more important as the population ages. Older adults deserve respect, consideration, and understanding, just like everyone else. As the population ages and grows, so should we. We should welcome the older generation, build on their strengths, and keep making our world more understanding and welcoming.

And remember that you can teach an old dog new tricks. The assumption that today’s technocentric society means we must exclude those who never grew up with computers is hogwash. People can learn at any age, and I always look back at “The Nun’s Study” for wisdom on this.

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Pat Farrell PhD
Pat Farrell PhDhttps://medium.com/@drpatfarrell
I'm a licensed psychologist in NJ/FL and have been in the field for over 30 years serving in most areas of mental health, psychiatry research, consulting, teaching (post-grad), private practice, consultant to WebMD and writing self-help books. Currently, I am concentrating on writing articles and books.


Medika Editor: Mental Health

I'm a licensed psychologist in NJ/FL and have been in the field for over 30 years serving in most areas of mental health, psychiatry research, consulting, teaching (post-grad), private practice, consultant to WebMD and writing self-help books. Currently, I am concentrating on writing articles and books.

Patricia also acts in an editorial capacity for Medika's mental health articles, providing invaluable input on a wide range of mental health issues.

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