Provided by Spirit Lake Consulting, Inc.
"Making life better"


The current century has witnessed a dramatic increase in the proportion of population living to be elderly. Here's a good question, now that I think of it.

       Just who are the elderly?

When North Dakota was becoming a state, the average woman died before age 40. Women used to have a lower life expectancy than men. Why? Because so many of them died in childbirth.

Another interesting thought. We have more people dying of cancer, suffering from emphysema and osteoporosis than ever, because they are living long enough. When a
significant proportion of our population died before age five of childhood diseases for which we now have vaccinations, or of infections which can now be treated with
antibiotics, then we did not have as many people suffering from Alzheimer's. Many of the people I know my age are afraid of growing old, which strikes me as odd,
since the alternative is to die young (well, okay, it is too late for us to die young, middle aged then.)

QUICK! Look up the answer to this question:

       The fastest growing population in America is.....
       a) those under 25
       b) those reaching age 45
       c) those reaching age 65
       d) those reaching age 85

Your textbook takes the view of looking at the glass as half-full rather than half-empty when they elaborate at length about how only 21% of older adults say that their health is poor, and over three-quarters report that their health not seriously impaired. When I read this, I just happened to remember that, in my other life as a statistical consultant, I had a dataset on the computer to analyze and it had 64 middle-aged women's ratings of their health. Only 5% of them reported that they were in poor health. So, the half-empty side of the equation is that older adults are four times as likely to be in poor health than middle-aged adults.

What is the difference between a chronic illness and an acute illness?

You should know this. Okay, just in case you don't, an acute illness is one which is "attended with symptoms of some degree of seriousness and coming speedily to a crisis". In other words, it is serious, and hits you fairly rapidly. Then you either recover, or, in some cases, die. Pneumonia is an example of an acute illness.
 A chronic illness is "one which is of long continuance or progresses slowly". Cancer, emphysema and diabetes are examples of chronic diseases. Once you get these, you have them for a long time, sometimes until you die.

Now, answer this question....

Elderly Americans are more likely to experience:
(a) a higher incidence of multiple disorders
(b) lower incidence of chronic diseases
(c) higher incidence of acute illnesses
(d) multiple serious disorders
The answer to the first question above was (d), by the way.

Another highly recommended book... (What? You mean this late in the course you have not started your book review yet! )

    Alex Comfort, in his book, A good age, discusses ageism in depth. Incidentally, Comfort was most famous when I was in college as the author of the Joy of sex, a book which all of us had in dorm rooms in lieu of any actual sex which was much harder to come by. Speaking of which, Comfort, a gerontologist, says that sixty-, seventy- and eighty-year-olds are usually perfectly capable of having sex. Their major obstacles are:
  • lack of partners, -- this is especially true of widows and other single, elderly women, since there is a disproportion of males among older adults due to the greater longevity of women
  • lack of privacy -- especially true in nursing homes, other assisted care facilities and for those who live with family members. Opportunities for sexual activities for their residents is not foremost in the planning of the design of most residential programs. Adult children generally are not too comfortable with the idea of mom or grandma having sex, either, and just try not to think about it.
  • lack of social approval - think of the stereotypes that we have about the dirty old man or man-crazed widow. Many older adults just don't think it is appropriate for them to show an interest in sex.

Let's talk about ageism a little more, that would be discrimination based on age. A number of authors, including Comfort and the late Wolf Wolfensberger, have asserted that older adults get poorer, less aggressive medical care than younger adults. Where we would try all 'heroic' measures to save a younger adult's life, with an older person, the attitude of medical personnel might be, "She is eighty-three, what is the point of doing a heart operation?" The same is true of correctible impairments and injuries. I once analyzed a survey conducted by an organization interested in hearing loss, and they found that many older adults with hearing impairments never went and got hearing aids because they just accepted missing parts of conversations as part of getting old. Now think about if that was your thirteen-year-old child instead of your seventy-year-old grandma. You would make darn sure that child got hearing aids, wouldn't you?

When a younger person has some type of injury which impairs mobility, for example, my oldest daughter recently tore a ligament in her knee, we insist on surgery to correct it. When an older person has an injury, we, and they, are more likely to believe they should just accept some degree of impairment as part of old age. Yet, if someone had suggested that my seventeen-year-old should not have surgery and just learn to live with pain and not being able to run, we would consider such a suggestion shocking and heartless. It is like the old joke:


A ninety-three-year-old woman complains to her physician that her left knee has been hurting her, it tends to go out on her when she is going downstairs or has been walking for an extended period, causing her to fall. This has restricted her freedom to get around, since she tends to avoid going  to places where she knows she will have to climb a lot of stairs or walk a lot. The doctor tells her, 
"Well, you have to expect that sort of thing at your age, after all, you are ninety-three." 
The woman responds, 
"Well, my other knee is ninety-three, too, and it feels fine!"


Two last points....

Comfort says that, if your doctor believes that being old means you should accept being sick, socially isolated and sexually inactive, then you should find another doctor! He also stated that old people are physically impaired for the same reasons that younger peopole are, they were injured, got sick, or, in a minority of cases, were born that way. (He forgot to mention drugs, though, check out the discussion of prescription medication in your textbook). Comfort asserts that older people are not qualitatively different in their physical functioning than the rest of the population.
You do not become a different person when you are old. If you love your work, enjoy walking in the woods, like sex and are involved with your community, what makes you think that when you are thirty years old, the idea of being celibate and playing shuffleboard all day will appeal to you? If the idea of setting home and doing nothing appalls you, at what age do you think it will sound attractive to you? One of the points throughout this course is that, while there is both stability and change in development, throughout the lifespan, you stay the same person in many important ways.


Oh, by the way, the answer to the second question was (c).

Go the next quiz. It is a long one, so be sure you have read Chapter 16 first.

Go to the next page on older adult development.


Spirit Lake Consulting, Inc. -- P.O.Box 663, 314 Circle Dr., Fort Totten, ND 58335 Tel: (701) 351-2175 Fax: (800) 905 -2571
Email us at:
An Indian-owned business