Misconceptions about aging are easy to come by. You may have even met an older person who fits a common stereotype. But here's a reality check: Age doesn't define who a person is.
Scott Lilienfeld, a professor of psychology at Emory University in Atlanta, who co-authored "50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology" (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), blames age-related myths on a combination of memory and media.
"We like to remember things that are readily accessible in our memories," Lilienfeld said. "Cases of elderly who are grumpy, depressed, irritable, angry and the like are memorable because they have an impact on us emotionally. Cases of the elderly who are doing just find don't have much of an impact on us, so they don't stand out in our memories." Also, he added, "Media coverage and popular movies reinforce these negative stereotypes."
Read on to find why getting older doesn't mean becoming a stereotype.
Once the kids have moved out of the house, the myth goes, husbands and wives feel disconnected and even depressed and may drift apart or divorce. Typically, that isn't the case. " In general, once the children leave home, there's evidence there's an upswing in marital satisfaction," said Joan Erber, a professor emeritus of psychology at Florida International University in Miami, who is working on a book examining misconceptions about old age.
"There may be some people who have gotten out of touch with a mate and once the kids leave home it may be tough to reconnect," Erber said. But it's just as likely that such couples had difficulties when the children were living at home and waited for them to leave before formally divorcing.
Midlife, the myth goes, is a time when men find a young girlfriend, buy a hairpiece or splurge on a fancy red sports car. The latter myth, Erber said, is the most common stereotype she encounters in discussions with her psychology students.
But there's not much evidence that middle age triggers these changes. Any levels of dissatisfaction middle-aged people experience likely won't reach crisis levels. And even if people do experience a crisis, it may be a mistake to assume age alone is the trigger.
"If you have a crisis during midlife, you probably had one when you were younger, and you'll probably continue to have them," Erber said.
"Some people are crisis prone, and some people aren't."
Curiously, some life-altering events associated with the midlife crisis don't actually happen in midlife. In their book, Lilienfeld and his colleagues noted that the age at which a first divorce occurs for men as well as women tends to be in the early 30s, well before middle age.
As for the sports car, they noted, "when people purchase their fantasy sports car in their 40s, it may have nothing to do with making the best of a crisis. Rather, they may finally be able to make the payments on the car for which they longed as teenagers."
While younger people may worry about growing old, getting there doesn't seem to be a drain on people's happiness. Public opinion surveys on happiness consistently show that older Americans are the happiest demographic group.
Lilienfeld said one reason the myth of depressed older people may have taken hold is that "although depression typically isn't more pronounced among the elderly, suicide is." Indeed, he added, suicide attempts in the elderly tend to be more lethal than in younger people. Because of this, "we may conclude erroneously that there's also a link between old age and depression."
At least two potential problems can arise from the stereotype.
"First, friends and loved ones might incorrectly assume that extreme sadness in a man in midlife or in an elderly person is 'normal' and therefore ignore it," Lilienfeld said. "But such depression isn't normal, nor is it typical, and it may be a serious mistake to neglect it.
"Second, expectations may at times create reality. If an elderly person begins to feel depressed, he or she may assume that this is to be expected, and may not make concerted efforts to combat it."
Aging may bring people closer to death, but it also brings them closer to accepting it as a reality. "Older people, it seems, have less fear of death than middle-aged people," Erber said. "They are more socialized to the fact life doesn't last forever. That's a reason they may enjoy life more."
Meanwhile, middle-aged people have dependents, whether it be their children or older relatives, whom they need to support. Concerns about what would happen if they were to die likely fuel their fear of death, Erber said.
How much of a myth this is may hinge upon how you define everyday tasks and old age.
"Older adulthood is a huge chronological age range," she said. " People known as the young old, ages 65 to 74, don't differ that much from those who are middle-aged."
Furthermore, she said, while disease and dementia may limit what someone is able to do, old age itself does not. "Most people, as long as they're living in the right setting, can do everyday things," she said. "If you are positioned to get things delivered or are still within walking distance or are still driving, I don't think it's really a problem."
One major change that age can bring: Fewer responsibilities. For example, you may generally cook just for yourself or yourself and a spouse, rather than a large group. While people over 85 may have more difficulties and need more help, remaining independent is largely a matter of accommodation, Erber said, which may include moving to a more urban area and getting some help.
"As people move into those really late age ranges, and are going to be living on their own, they might need more support services," Erber said.
The likelihood of being totally dependent on others is slim. "That probably won't happen unless there's some kind of physical or cognitive problem, " Erber said.