Myths and Stereotypes about Aging

We are surrounded by misconceptions of older adults. We have all seen cartoons making jokes about older adults whose memories are poor or whose physical abilities have declined. Most damaging are the ideas portrayed in the media that older adults are incapable of leading productive
lives and making a difference. For example, many greeting cards portray older people as having little memory, no teeth, and no desire for sex. As a way to discover something about development, try to find several examples of myths or stereotypes about aging. Look at those greeting cards,
cartoons, advertisements, and articles in popular magazines, television shows, and music. Gather as many as you can, and then check them against the research on the topic discussed in this text. By the end of the course, see how many myths and stereotypes you can show to be wrong.

all about. The life-span perspective divides human development into two phases: an early phase (child­hood and adolescence) and a later phase (young adulthood, middle age, and old age). The early phase is characterized by rapid age-related increases in people’s size and abilities. During the later phase, changes in size are slow, but abilities continue to develop as people continue adapting to the environ­ment (Baltes, Lindenberger, & Staudinger, 2006).

Viewed from the life-span perspective, adult development and aging are complex phenomena that cannot be understood within the scope of a single disciplinary approach. Understanding how adults change requires input from a wide variety of perspectives. Moreover, aging is a lifelong process, meaning that human development never stops.

One of the most important perspectives on life­span development is that of Paul Baltes (1987; Baltes et al., 2006), who identified four key features of the life-span perspective:

• Multidirectionality: Development involves both growth and decline; as people grow in one area, they may lose in another and at different rates. For example, people’s vocabulary ability tends to increase throughout life, but reaction time tends to slow down.

• Plasticity: One’s capacity is not predetermined or set in concrete. Many skills can be trained or improved with practice, even in late life. There are limits to

the degree of potential improvement, however, as described in later chapters.

• Historical context: Each of us develops within a particular set of circumstances determined by the historical time in which we are born and the culture in which we grow up. Maria’s experiences were shaped by living in the 20th century in a Chicano neighborhood in southwest Texas.

• Multiple causation: How people develop results from a wide variety of forces, which we consider later in this chapter. You will see that development is shaped by biological, psychological, sociocultural, and life-cycle forces.

The life-span perspective emphasizes that human development takes a lifetime to complete. It sets the stage for understanding the many influences we experience and points out that no one part of life is any more or less important than another.

Basing their theories on these principles, Baltes et al. (2006) argue that life-span development consists of the dynamic interactions among growth, maintenance, and loss regulation. In their view, four factors are critical:

• As people grow older, they show an age-related reduction in the amount and quality of biologically based resources.

• There is an age-related increase in the amount and quality of culture needed to generate continuously


higher growth. Usually this results in a net slowing of growth as people age.

• People show an age-related decline in the efficiency with which they use cultural resources.

• There is a lack of cultural, “old-age friendly” support structures.

Taken together, these four factors create the need to shift more and more resources to maintain func­tion and deal with biologically related losses as we grow old, leaving fewer resources to be devoted to continued growth. As we see throughout this book, this shift in resources has profound implications for experiencing aging and for pointing out ways to age successfully.