Joseph A. Ilardo, PhD, LCSW
"My mother is driving me crazy!" the woman said earnestly. "She's always been a little stubborn, but now it's worse than ever!" My client, married and the mother of three, had sought help because she and her mother simply could not resolve their disagreements. Despite the apparent reasonableness of the daughter's positions, no amount of pleading or reasoning could bend her mother's will.
While there is no doubt my client's distress was real, her comment revealed she was wedded to a popular misconception about older people. In her case, that misconceptionthat people's characteristics become more pronounced as they agewas helping to defeat her efforts to persuade her mother. Sometimes when we expect another person to be stubborn, we encounter the very stubbornness we expect!
In the following paragraphs, I'll debunk some of the popular myths surrounding the psychological characteristics of older folks.
Myth: As people age, their psychological characteristics don't change. They simply become more extreme.
Fact: While this view is convenient and seems to have some validity, it is inaccurate. Certainly we all have basic personality traits that endure throughout life. Partly the result of our genes and partly of experience, these traits form early in life. But within the past decade, researchers have determined that the brain is characterized by plasticity: it possesses the ability (most pronounced between birth and 12 years) to change itself as a result of experience. The old "nature-nurture" controversy has gone on so long because personality is the result of an interaction between genetic endowment and personal experience.
While there can no longer be any doubt that tendencies to behave in certain ways are the product of early life experience, it is also true that psychological growth and change occur throughout the life span. The brain's plasticity is most pronounced in youth, but it never entirely disappears. If it did, we would never learn anything new after age twelve! Thus, it is possible to change (sometimes even dramatically) as an adult.
In sum, psychological growth and change characterize old folks as well as young ones. Rather than "giving up" on old folks, it is best to remind ourselves that they do not simply become more of what they were when they were young.
Myth: Old people inevitably become depressed and bitter.
Fact: An elderly person's psychological state is likely to be consistent with the levels of adjustment and functioning he or she reached in prior years. Happy, productive people who enjoy their lives can expect to continue to feel that way well into old age. Conversely, less well adjusted people, those prone to bitterness or anxiety, for example, are likely to feel that way as they age. (A reminder is in order, however: it is never too late to seek therapy. More on this later.)
It is true that some psychological symptoms are fairly common among older people. However, those symptoms are not an inevitable consequence of aging. Depression, for example, is often a function of social isolation. It can also result from the lack of validation by others. There may be few or no people who praise the older person for his or her appearance or for a job well done. Given a healthy environment, most seniors respond normally, just as they would have as younger people. Praised, they feel pleased with themselves; validated, they feel a sense of personal worth.
Attitude is key. Much can be done to improve the attitude of the elderly. A long-term project designed to improve the quality of life of seniors confined to nursing homes has demonstrated that seniors do much better when they are allowed to take responsibility for someone or something. For example, giving seniors the responsibility of providing for pets or plants often does a great deal to help them reach outside of themselves to care for another living thing. It's no surprise that whenever seniorsor anyone elsedo that, they feel better. (See Life Worth Living by William H. Thomas, M.D. for more about this concept.)