Life expectancy has increased in most countries, particularly in western countries, as a consequence of advanced technology, vaccinations, antibiotics and other forms of therapies. The 20th Century saw a significant rise in life expectancy in wealthy population groups of developed nations. From an average of 50 years, life expectancy jumped to 75 years because of efficacious preventive measures against killer parasitic and infectious diseases. In most of these nations, every sixth person is 65 years old or above . This is one of mankind’s momentous achievements and we congratulate these nations for it. Nations such as Japan, USA, France, East and West Germany, Sweden and UK, have a life expectancy averaging over 80 years . Unfortunately, this bright picture is not universal. The developing world is experiencing the opposite of the above scenario due to the scourge of AIDS and other infectious diseases that have been ravaging it, relentlessly. However, although we all covet longevity, it does not always guarantee living well. Aging always comes with a gradual but progressive decline in biological functionality due to onset of age-related health conditions. For example, aging is often characterized by degeneration of cells. This loss of the cells’ regenerative ability can lead to morbidity that can impair the general vitality of the individual. Such changes can be frightening and can trigger feelings of loss of self-worth as well as feelings of insecurity. To prevent this, the aging individual needs to be surrounded by a strong support system. However, while in sub-modern cultures, old people are usually revered as repositories of cultural values and oases of generational wisdom, in most western societies they are more likely to be associated with lower social status and less power. There is an alarming growing negative stereotype and stigma against the elderly in western societies . Because of the prevalence of such an attitude towards aging, a desperate effort to cling to youth has flooded and permeated these societies. Consequently, the demand for countless formulas, creams, pills and programs for discovering the fountain of youth and reversing signs of aging have established a foundation for a lucrative business that has blossomed into a multi-billion dollar industry. Propelled by fear of aging and ageism, all types and categories of cosmetics and hair styles meant to slow down or camouflage the aging process have saturated the market.
Ageism, which is prejudice and stigma directed at advancement in age, is evident in workplaces, in social life, and even in healthcare facilities where physicians and nurses’ expectancies and attitudes toward elderly people’s capabilities tend to shape the type of care they receive. For instance, an elderly person who is depressed is likely to be misdiagnosed with dementia. The belief that chronic illness is an inevitable consequence of the normal process of aging can cause the elderly to be overlooked for preventive or screening programs. A notorious job-related example of ageism was the mandatory retirement age that led to the creation of the Age Employment Discrimination Act of 1967.
Elderly people’s constant exposure to ageism can adversely impact their mental and physical health as well as their capability to execute normal activities of daily living. Research has demonstrated that elderly people exposed to negative stereotypes at subliminal levels can end up with increased systolic and diastolic blood pressure, and increased heart-rate to stress levels compared to their counterparts exposed to positive stereotype about their aging process in societies such as China, Japan and Africa . Constant exposure to ridicule about their aging process has also been found to negatively affect elderly people’s will to live, their walking speed and even their handwriting. Furthermore, their memory can deteriorate quickly if constantly subjected to such derision. Although decline in cognitive abilities, and other physiological functions among the elderly may be an inevitable result of declining biological functions, these can be exacerbated by exposure to mocking and scornful language, negative stereotype, and stigma. Consequently, most elderly people feel safer when they confine themselves to groups of fellow elderly individuals who share the same fate such as those in assisted living facilities. Sadly, this usually means that they have lost their freedom to participate in matters that shape the destiny of their own society. But such a society deprives itself of the unique contribution these individuals can make based on the cumulative wealth of their experience.
To compound the problem of increased numbers of elderly people in developed nations, is the inevitable increased pressure and demand this exerts on social and health care systems. The increase in the population of the elderly means an increase in demand for long-term care facilities because elderly people are responsible for high utilization of these facilities. In the UK, the per capita utilization of health care services by old people is 3-5 times higher than for younger population groups . The services and programs that were designed and implemented to support the elderly are financed by the population in the working age bracket. An increase in the numbers of elderly people means an increase in utilization of these resources, which makes the elderly an unwelcome burden to society. Obviously, there is need for better policies and interventions to help the elderly. For instance, not all the disabilities the elderly have should be considered as handicaps. Efficacious interventions can be conducted to help enhance their mobility and self-care. This can help them become less dependent on others. Primary preventive measures should be aggressively promoted to delay onset of debilitating health conditions such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke that can lead to morbidity and even mortality. A new paradigm is also needed to regard old age as a blessing not a curse, not only for the elderly individual but for the society as well, whether western or not.
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