August 28, 2011

USA: Don't let aging myths get you down

EVERETT, Washington / The Daily Herald / Life / August 28, 2011

By Sarah Jackson, Herald Writer

Getting older isn't easy, especially if you're not feeling well

People, doctors included, sometimes assume your problems are a part of old age and that you'll just have to live with them.

But that's just wrong, said Kamilia Dunsky, a geriatric mental health specialist with Senior Services of Snohomish County.

All of us, even as we age, are entitled to a reasonably high quality of life, including excellent health.

Buying into stereotypes and myths takes individuality out of the equation, Dunsky said.

"We all age differently," she said.

To prove the point, Dunsky often tells a little story: An 85-year-old man goes to see his doctor and complains of a pain in his right knee.

Photo Courtesy: International Business Times

"Ah, you're just getting older," the doctor says. "You're 85."

The man responds: "My left knee is 85, too, and it feels fine."

It's an illustration of one of the most common myths of aging: Being old means being in poor health.

"I think we live in a rather ageist culture," Dunsky said. "There are things that are common as we age and things that are normal as we age."

Yes, joint problems are common, but they are not normal, Dunsky said.

Seniors need to know exactly why they're having health problems so they can seek the best treatment: Is it osteoarthritis? Is it a rheumatological condition or something else?

Dunsky's advice is the same for depression. It may be common among seniors, but it's not normal and should be treated.  Even people who are in the process of dying can enjoy a positive self-image and even joy.

"We want to go all the way through to the end and continue to feel OK about ourselves, and to enjoy our life and enjoy positive relationships, and have hopes and pleasure in life, and find meaning in life," Dunsky said.

Another myth Dunsky likes to debunk in her talks with seniors is that genetics are everything when it comes to overall health for seniors, that for successful aging you should "choose your parents wisely," a disempowering sentiment.

"Heredity is a tremendously powerful factor. It's not as important as many people assume," Dunsky said.

Environment and lifestyle have a big influence on whether we develop certain diseases, Dunsky said. Seniors can maintain their good health with diet and exercise and with medications that their parents didn't have during their golden years.

Here's another myth: You can't teach an old dog new tricks. Research on older groups has proven that, even as we age, our personality and creativity continue to develop, Dunsky said. That means there's more room for optimism as well as new interests and hobbies.

"This is a big shift in thinking about aging," Dunsky said. "You've got to be able to take up the accordion when you're 85. "We can continue to learn and grow, and we develop new brain cells and new synapses. We lay down new memories."

Dunsky advises all of us, not just seniors, to be realistic about expectations, however: Don't expect to be an overnight virtuoso.

"Most of us are average," she said. "That is what average means. It's OK. It's great."

If you want to age well, find a way to be positive, Dunsky said.

Studies of centenarians have found optimism as a common trait among people who live to be 100.  Seniors who believe in themselves and have a positive outlook can thrive. They might say or think to themselves: "I have the ability to handle what life brings me," Dunsky said.

"I can handle what's coming. It's never too late to benefit from healthy living."  "It's never too late to decide that I want to maintain the meaning in my life."

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