Misconceptions About Aging: 4 Important Issues

Don’t let incorrect assumptions hinder the help you offer to aging relatives in their emotional and financial affairs.

As family members age – whether they are spouses, partners, parents or other relatives — those who help manage their affairs want to act with their best interests in mind. But even with the greatest of intentions, common stereotypes about older people can creep into thinking and affect judgment calls — from when it’s time to take away the car keys to conversations about moving into a senior living center or assisted care facility.

Keith Klovee-Smith, Senior Vice President, National Director, and his team of specialists in Wells Fargo Elder Services have seen firsthand how stereotypes concerning aging can lead to tension and even mistakes in care, which family members may later deeply regret. Here are four of the most common misconceptions to be aware of as your family plans for the future.

Misconception No. 1: As we age, the slide to dementia is inevitable. One of the most prevalent stereotypes in America is that aging is a process of inevitable and steady decline in our physical and mental abilities. “Most people believe we have full capacity between ages 20 to 35, and that it’s all downhill from there,” says Klovee-Smith. “It’s such a strongly held stereotype that people start providing care and interactions for older people based on the stereotype instead of the unique human being that’s in front of them.”

For instance, he says sometimes it is assumed an older person is suffering from dementia when really an infection may be causing him or her to act or appear confused. Other common ailments that can masquerade as diminished mental capability include low blood pressure, thyroid problems, clinical depression, and medication side effects or interactions.

“We train our team members to pay attention to what’s really going on with the person,” says Klovee-Smith, who oversees the Wells Fargo Elder Services specialists who work with older clients and their families.

Countering this misconception: Be vigilant about obtaining accurate diagnoses of dementia and other illnesses. Make sure you, your spouse and older generations have adequate health coverage to cover needed tests and visits to specialists.

Misconception No. 2: You need to “age in place.” The notion of “aging in place,” or living at home for as long as possible, has become part of the lexicon of retirement planning; many adults manage their finances to make it a reality .

“Aging in place has become a norm as a way to talk about the goals for retirement,” Klovee-Smith says. “The problem with it? It sounds nice, but it’s not the best thing for some adults. Every situation is unique.”

Klovee-Smith tried to make aging in place work for his mother. “I built more and more services around her,” he says. “I had somebody cooking for her, cleaning for her. But what I actually did was socially isolate my mother. She had all the services, but she didn’t have one of the things aging adults need most — other people’s company.”

After he helped her move to an assisted living facility, he says color came back to her cheeks. She enjoyed the activities provided by the facility and needed fewer medications. “She was actually a much happier individual,” he says.

Countering this misconception: Set aside the concept of “aging in place” and instead talk about the goal of independence for your loved ones and (when the time comes) for yourself. “If you can build services in an environment that offers many of the benefits perceived as part of aging in place, that’s the goal, wherever they may be living,” Klovee-Smith says. As you help older loved ones plan for the future, consider involving the whole family in the planning as appropriate. “We work with whoever the family wants to be part of planning,” Klovee-Smith says.

Misconception No. 3: Older people just focus on the past. Often, people talk to older family members about decades-old events — their childhood, World War II — as if they’ve lost interest in the present and don’t think about the future because they’ve aged. That’s simply not the case. We all think about the past, present and future, no matter what age we are.

Klovee-Smith says one of his Wells Fargo team members once asked a 90-year-old client to imagine what her life would be like in 10 years. She laughed and joked about whether she’d be around for the next two years. But then, she turned serious and began to describe her hopes and dreams.

Countering this misconception: Realize your loved ones have a future and need to plan for it just as much as you do — not just financially but emotionally, as well.

Misconception No. 4: After “big birthdays,” assistance is mandatory. The aging process isn’t set in stone. It’s readily accepted that some 20-year-olds are more mature than other 20-year-olds, but many times, society can forget that such differences occur in the 65+ crowd, too. Some 90-year-olds still cook gourmet meals for special events; others had to give up responsibilities in the kitchen decades earlier.

Chronological age differs from internal age, and the two rarely synch up. Might a 45-year-old think of herself as perpetually 33? Could a 70-year-old forget she’s a septuagenarian, having fixed her internal clock to 55? Try not to project your idea of what it means to be 80 onto your loved one.

Countering this misconception: Klovee-Smith notes that there’s a spectrum of moving from capacity to incapacity, and people move along it at vastly different rates throughout their lives — not just at retirement age. Use insights from your or your loved ones’ vibrant years to map out the right options for now and the future.