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Study: Over-80s Defy Ageism


Today’s 80 and 90-year-olds are using a variety of strategies to resist life-limiting stereotypes, a new study reports.

The University of Zurich’s Harm-Peer Zimmermann and Heinrich Grebe interviewed 75 Germans about what living well in old age meant to them.

The participants were aged 80 and older, and they came from different social and educational backgrounds. Researchers also interviewed 20 relatives of older people.

Results showed that today’s 80 and 90-year-olds relish the positive aspects of aging, while they acknowledge the losses. They focus on living life to the fullest, and they use emotional resilience to battle the crippling effects of ageism.

The negative portrayals of old age in the German media may be a key factor of ageism, the authors said.

The findings appeared online in the Journal of Aging Studies (Vol. 28, January 2014).

Life is good

Beyond good health and personal independence, the participants most valued everyday pleasures such as:

  • visits from relatives and friends
  • opportunities to discuss local and world events
  • time spent in nature
  • good food and drink, and
  • relaxing activities.

Coping with physical limitations

The participants stressed the importance of having a good attitude in dealing with the downside of aging. This meant maintaining perspective and viewing things from a distance.

Take Mrs. M., an 88-year-old retired secondary school teacher, who was forced to put aside a longed-for trip to Greece because of poor mobility. "Of course, it’s a shame I’ve never been to Greece," she told the researchers. "But so what? As a child I saw half the world."

Although clearly disappointed by her inability to travel, Mrs. M. refused to allow the situation to spoil her enjoyment of life.

The men and women also worked to prevent poor health from robbing them of their zest for life. A 91-year-old former nurse said, "One must especially keep a mental distance to one’s illnesses, otherwise they take over completely until nothing more is left."

Saying "no" to labels

Several participants talked about news stories that portrayed their age group as a monolithic block and a drain on society. They pointed out that old people share a diversity of interests, backgrounds and abilities.

Notably, the study found participants used a mix of mental strength and composure to deter others from labeling them a "problem."

For example, one 88-year-old said: "I want to stay in my own home for as long as I can. I don’t want any home care, either. I don’t want to be a burden on the state."

She added: "Of course, I don’t want to go to [where her son lives] either: I think that’s asking too much. You can’t put your family in that situation, they have their own life."

Maintaining control

Other participants emphasized the need to maintain control over their lives, such as managing their own financial affairs.

Take the case of Mrs. L., 84, who found she was unable to withdraw money from her account at the local branch of her bank. The reason given was that she was no longer legally competent. As it turns out, Mrs. L’s own daughter had had her mother’s funds frozen after the latter had told her of confusing dreams and night-time hallucinations. Her daughter also contacted her mother’s physician, who had a psychiatrist examine Mrs. L’s psychological condition.

Since then, Mrs. L. has regained access to her bank account. But she told researchers the incident made her extremely angry and that she cannot get over it. "And ever since then, I don’t dare tell anybody anything," she said. "Not even my daughter . . . "

Rampant ageism

Today more and more people are living into their 80s, 90s and beyond, but ageism continues to be tolerated.

This group of over-80s used emotional resistance and forcefulness to assert their needs, maintain their dignity, cheer themselves up and protect themselves.