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Aging: Myths and Realities (Part One, Continued)

Another widely accepted myth is that diminished vision, loss of hearing, and other sensory deficits that characterize old age are inevitable and irreversible.

Here are the facts: A loss of sensory acuity does occur as people age. Hearing and vision do diminish somewhat, as do taste and other senses. However, careful monitoring of an aging person's behavior can help caregivers recognize when such losses occur so that corrective measures can be taken.

In addition to the obvious signs of hearing loss (raising the volume on the TV, for example), some of the indirect signs of diminished hearing loss are personality changes (a formerly outgoing and social person begins to avoid talking with others), feelings of suspicion (the elderly person might begin to feel people are talking about him), and disinterest or self-imposed isolation.

Loss of vision can cause a person to abandon hobbies and interests he or she used to enjoy—an avid reader begins losing interest in reading, a person who always enjoyed needlepoint puts her materials aside.

Once most sensory losses are identified, corrective measures (hearing aids, for example) can often make the losses assume a minor place in the life of the elderly person.

The worst thing an adult child or caregiver can do is to assume that nothing can be done. I know of a case in which an elderly gentleman suffered serious and progressive hearing loss. The family did nothing about the problem, because they had been told by a physician many years earlier that nothing could be done. Not until the elderly client was brought to a geriatric physician did the family learn that new developments had made it possible to restore nearly 80 percent of his original hearing.

The lesson here is that caregivers should be aggressive in attempting to correct sensory deficits. Explore all options.

Perhaps the most destructive myth affects not only attitudes toward the elderly but also feelings about ourselves. It is that most of the problems of old age are inevitable.

The fact is, only some problems are a function of aging itself. For example, the efficiency of the immune system does appear to break down as a person ages. Cells die. Vulnerability to disease increases. Hence it is no surprise that 50 percent of cancers occur after age 65; 80 percent occur after age 50.

However, lifestyle, and one's choices early and later in life can have a profound impact on how gracefully a person ages. Avoidance of smoking, for example, can yield many long-term benefits. Regular exercise, intellectual stimulation, maintaining social contacts—all these can yield health benefits as well.

Joe Ilardo is an award-winning author and clinical social worker. In As Parents Age: A Psychological and Practical Guide, he offers compassionate and practical advice on what happens as parents age and how to talk with them about the future. For information about the author's availability for convention addresses, workshops, training conferences, or other presentations, call (914) 725-5452 or e-mail him at ircassoc@yahoo.com.

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