We’re all accustomed to hearing how memory problems are common – or even inevitable – in older people. And if you’re anything like me, each time you enter a room and forget what you came for you’ll think it’s a “senior moment”, a sign of things to come.
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But perhaps this stereotype is a self-fulfilling prophesy. A study undertaken by researchers at the University of Southern California suggests that negative stereotypes about ageing can actually impair memory. The study found that a group of older people asked to perform memory tests after reading fictitious articles about age-related memory problems did less well than a group given articles on preservation of and improvement in memory with age.
The researchers tested their results by giving participants a range of memory tests, with different positive or negative effects related to performance. Their results consistently showed that concern about being negatively stereotyped impaired memory.
It strikes me that our attitudes to older people may be harming them in more than memory alone. How often do we assume that an older person will find it difficult to perform a task and that it would be better to do it for them? Or do we tell ourselves it will be better for them when we really mean quicker for us?
And when we discuss the fact that the proportion of the population over retirement age is growing as the baby boom generation swells its ranks, it is usually in a negative context. How will we care for all these dependent older people? Who will fund all this care?
Of course old age brings a certain amount of decline in function, but perhaps if we took a more positive view of older people they would retain their physical and mental abilities for longer. Maybe then we wouldn’t be worrying quite as much about how health and social care services will cope with the “timebomb” of the ageing population, and instead looking at how older people can remain actively engaged in and contributing to society.