We’ve all heard the stereotype and seen the videos, movies, and images that reinforce it: a grumpy old man yelling at kids to get off his lawn or a mean old lady living alone in a huge, creepy house on the hill. While these images are undoubtedly part of our cultural fabric, they’re also an unfortunate series of myths that is perpetuated on a regular basis. If we’re being honest, most of us have believed the “Grumpy Old People” stereotype at one point or another and many of us may still believe it today. As it turns out, however, this stereotype is unfair and untrue. In recent years, research has come to light that suggests that, despite what our cultural norms may tell us, aging individuals often become happier and more open as they age rather than becoming angry and closed-off. Here’s what you need to know.
Where the “Grumpy Old Person” Stereotype Falls ShortAccording to a recent study conducted by researchers at Northwestern University, it’s not at all uncommon for seniors to become more trusting, more open, more positive, and generally happier as they age. The researchers behind the study concluded that these findings were the result of the fact that seniors are more willing to trust other people than their younger counterparts were. This, in turn, led to increased happiness levels over time. How’s that for doing away with the “You darn kids get off of my lawn!” image? In addition to making seniors happier, this increase in trust also had marked biochemical effects. Namely, seniors who were more willing to trust the people around them experienced elevated levels of oxytocin – the hormone associated with intimacy and attachment. Multiple studies have linked oxytocin with a decrease in dangerous conditions, like chronic pain, and have associated it with faster wound healing, lower stress levels, and even recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder. Many people who hear that seniors are more willing to trust other people immediately worry about seniors becoming so trusting that they place themselves at risk of elder abuse. Fortunately, studies have found that this is not overwhelmingly the case. In fact, researchers have found that trust and well-being are actually associated in a positive and mutually beneficial fashion and that trust is not ultimately a liability for aging seniors. With this in mind, it’s clear that the “Grumpy Old People” stereotype is not a fair one and that, more often than not, people become more trusting, loving, and affectionate with age. In fact, seniors are often more agreeable in terms of “The Big Five” personality traits than their younger counterparts.
Understanding The Big FiveMost modern psychological studies are based on five personality traits, known as “The Big Five.” These traits are as follows:
- Extroversion: Extroversion refers to a person’s level of social willingness, excitability, and expressiveness.
- Openness: Openness measures openness to new experiences, new friendships, new imaginative pursuits, and the likes.
- Agreeableness: A person who has a high level of agreeableness is highly altruistic, trusting, and kind.
- Conscientiousness: Conscientiousness is a term that is used to refer to a person’s overall organization capabilities, willingness to set goals, and ability to be thoughtful.
- Neuroticism: Neuroticism refers to measurements like moodiness and instability in emotional well being, including anxiety and depression.
Where the “Grumpy Old People” Stereotype Comes FromStudies that evaluate seniors on the basis of the Big Five do consistently find one negative effect of aging: the levels of “openness” seniors display generally declines as people get older. This is likely due to a variety of factors, including decreased mobility, embarrassment about memory loss, isolation, and even illness. Because decreases in openness are fairly common, it’s likely that this is one of the things that contributes to the stereotype that seniors are unwilling to try new things or are “set in their ways.” Unfortunately, this stereotype is unfair. While many seniors are hesitant to try new things, it isn’t because they’re grumpy or mean – it’s often simply because they are experiencing some difficulty adjusting to a new life phase. While openness may decline with age, there are many things family and loved ones can do to help seniors become more open to new experiences once more. These include the following:
- Locate a class the senior will enjoy. If a senior loved painting years ago and hasn’t done it in decades, accompanying him or her to a painting class is a great way to help the senior open up to new experiences. Often, the most difficult part of trying new things for seniors is getting over the initial hump, after which point the senior may be more than happy to go alone!
- Providing plenty of interaction. One of the primary causes of decreased openness in seniors is isolation. As seniors become more isolated, their confidence and cognitive function begins to decline, which can make building new habits much more difficult. Ensuring daily interaction with a senior is one of the best ways to prevent this from happening.
- Get moving. Exercise is good for everything – including a senior’s openness levels. To help the senior make new habits and meet new friends, consider helping him or her find an exercise class, such as yoga or water aerobics, that will be enjoyable.
- Take it slow. Imagine how you would feel if someone forced you into taking a new class or hanging out with a new group of people. It would be uncomfortable, wouldn’t it? Because of this, it’s important to avoid forcing a senior into anything. Instead, take the entire process slow and be sure to respect the senior’s wishes and input as you move along.