Fears About Later Life

Fears about Later Life

Ageism denotes a stereotyped view of later life as a period of decline and disaster. But not all fears about old age are based on prejudice or imagination. Some fears are all too real.

While not a given, advancing age increases the probability of chronic illness, dementia, and death. A quick look at life insurance rates will tell you that mortality is a realistic fear for elders. Yet survey research suggests that older people are actually less afraid of death than younger people (Cicirelli, 2001).

So what are they afraid of? Older people typically express fears of dependency and loss of control. In comparison, death may even seem preferable. For example, the history of assisted suicide in Oregon, the only state where it is legal, suggests that very few people, even with terminal illness, actually make use of the option. When they do , it is mostly not for reasons of pain, but because they fear dependency and loss of autonomy (Sullivan, Hedberg, & Fleming, 2000).

Fear of dependency is also the reason behind common attitudes about nursing homes. It is not unusual for older people to say, "I'd rather die than go into a nursnig home." Ironically, many who do enter long-term care facilities adapt to the situation and may even find more opportunitie for activities, social contact, and support. But the fear of being "put away in a nursing home" is still widespread.

Another important fear among seniors is that of impoverishment-outliving one's income or assets. Here again, the fear is not unrealistic because poverty rates rise dramatically among the oldest-old (people over the age 80).

Lastly, there is the fears in later life was captured well by Shakespeare's play King Lear, which is probably the greatest literary work ever to depict the tragedy of age (Deats, 1999). Lear is a king who tries to prepare for his retirement, but finds himself in a state of extreme dependency. Two of his adult daughters fail to provide for him, and he ultimately loses his mind and is destroyed. Shakespeare understood that, no matter how powerful we are, old age can bring with it a loss of power and therefore greater vulnerability.

The information above is reprinted from Working with Seniors: Health, Financial and Social Issues with permission from Society of Certified Senior Advisors® . Copyright © 2009. All rights reserved. www.csa.us