Age and Its Awful Discontents (?)

The Misconception That Elders are Stuck in their Ways

category_bug_ageism.gif Okay, SuzyR and Cathy, you are IT today. I don't mean to pick on you specifically, but something you each said in your comments on yesterday's post needs to be addressed because it is a widely-held myth that must be debunked and defeated if ageism in general is ever going to end.

Here is the part of what SuzyR wrote I'm talking about:

”We do tend to entrench in our outlook as we get older...”

And here is Cathy's:

”I have come to believe that people cannot change their natures.

Maybe I am mistaken, but if by “nature,” Cathy also means people can't change in old age, the answer is no, no and no. This is one of the biggest misconceptions about old people.

However the idea is worded – set or stuck in their ways, cannot adapt to change, can't teach an old dog new tricks – it is simply wrong. Yet SuzyR and Cathy are hardly alone; it is believed by large numbers of people. A few examples:

From a website about eldercare.

“Many seniors become more stuck in their ways with every passing year.”

From a commercial website for hiring caregivers.

“It can be hard watching your parents age. All the times they were there for you when you had a cold or were hungry, and now they forget things and become more stuck in their ways.”

From a website in support of presidential candidate Ron Paul written by a reader who, a couple of weeks ago, had just attended a Utah caucus:

“The older generations are much more likely to cling to the familiar, are stuck in their ways, and are afraid of change.”

But none of that is true. Old people adapt to all kinds of changes, big ones too, every day: retirement, death of a spouse, reduced income, serious illness, moving to a smaller home, etc.

One of our own elderbloggers, Darlene Costner who is well into her ninth decade, left an eloquent note on yesterday's post about the changes she has lived with as she has grown old.

It is not just life-changing events and physical circumstances that elders navigate quite well. Attitudes and beliefs change too. One project analyzed data from the U.S. General Social Surveys of 46,510 Americans between 1972 and 2004:

”The surveys assessed attitudes on politics, economics, race, gender, religion and sexuality issues. In some cases, such as racial issues and questions of civil liberties for communists, the researchers measured a greater change toward liberalism in older people than in younger people.”

Why then do so many people believe elders become more conservative in old age? One of the researchers answered:

”People might find an average 60-year-old to be more conservative than an average 30-year-old, Danigelis said, but beware of extrapolating a trend. The older person, for example, might have started off even more conservative than he or she is now.

“Danigelis also blamed the misconception on pervasive negative attitudes toward the elderly in our country, and stereotypes that depict seniors as rigid, ornery and set in their ways.”

Elders' adaptability is not a revelation. It has a been well known to psychologists, geriatricians, gerontologists, etc. since at least the mid-20th century but some people – including a large swath of the general public – haven't heard and researchers continue their work to understand how the elder mind operates. A just-released, new study from the University of Illinois

“...shows that improving cognitive functioning in seniors actually changes an aspect of their personality, namely openness to experience...

“'The common assumption about personality is that it is hard-wired and won’t change, but this study contradicts that quite strongly,' said Brent Roberts, professor in the department of psychology at the University of Illnois at Urbana-Champaign and co-author of study.”

The perpetuation of this myth is always damaging to elders. There are others, but one serious consequence is that doctors, nurses, adult children and caregivers of all kinds who believe you can't teach an old dog new tricks will not help an elder learn what is necessary, for example, to monitor diabetes (or any other condition) that affects their health.

By the way and just for fun, the TV Mythbusters guys once tested the literal truth of the old dogs/new tricks adage by attempting to teach two seven-year-old malamutes who knew between them not a single dog trick:

”After four days of training, Bobo and Cece proved Fitzherbert flat wrong. Each could heel, sit, lie down, stay and shake upon command from Jamie and Adam. And since malamutes are known to be stubborn, Bobo and Cece's stellar performances definitively busted the myth and represented for old dogs everywhere.”

My favorite refutation of the myth, however, is found in a New York Times story from last fall about a country mouse and city mouse who each said they were set in their ways. But the story of their late-life marriage is entirely about change and adapting.

“He is economical with his words; she is ebullient. He reads newspapers in the morning; she peruses the Internet. The country house (his) has no TV set; the city apartment (hers) plays the TV news nonstop. And where her idea of preparing a meal typically involved a microwave exclusively, he is strictly a conventional-oven man.

“Yet the inevitable has happened. He is trying to sleep in the city despite the noise. She has become a consummate cook, whipping up bouillabaisse for him, and entertaining his five siblings and numerous cousins, many of whom visit frequently...”

SuzyR and Cathy: I hope you will forgive me for singling out your comments but they were an almost perfect teaching moment about this misconception and I appreciate the opportunity.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Barbara Sloan: Modern Technology in Elder Land


I love this column! As a discrimination paralegal (at age 68!)many of our cases are won on a manager in a meeting saying "Old dogs can't learn new tricks." This is clearly age discrimination and, for obvious reasons, one of my favorite type cases to work on. As for adaptability, at age 65, I sold my condo, quit my job and moved up north to help my newly widowed daughter and grandchildren, got a new job and supported them for two years. Then moved back south on my own, got a new condo and a new job...hows that for adaptable?


You love this column? I love your comment - you're a perfect example of adaption in elders.

I can see that you choose your words carefully when you have to reprimand one (or two) of us when we slip up. Ha. You have been such a good influence on me in this regard, but I still slip up now and then.

I hope that SuzyR and Cathy aren't offended whatsoever. Surely they can see where you're 'coming from' as they say and understand you are only trying to school us.

I, for one, appreciate it. It's not something a person can change overnight and we're even TRYING to change! :)


We were just gliding through life,enjoying retirement,when the bad news hit. Type II Diabetes for my husband. There's an adjustment for you.

Completely changing your diet and checking your blood sugar a couple times a day and taking your Insulin. Of course, the day always comes when you go too long without eating and you go into a Low Blood Sugar condition and it's necessary to call 911 to bring you around.

Then the REALLY bad news is told to you. That painful leg condition is because of very poor or NO circulation.After a few months of trying every conceivable method of improving the circulation and all fail, the leg has to be removed just under the knee.

So, at age 76 my husband has to adapt to not having a leg to stand on,as they say. But he still has his sense of humor and when the kids were told that Dad had to lose his leg they all felt terrible and really didn't know what to say.

What did Dad tell them? "Don't worry,Kids,it will be all right. All my life I never had enough socks."

We still go everywhere. We went to California to the Rose Bowl and visited the Crystal Cathedral to see their fabulous Christmas show which features live animals.

An usher came down the aisle and cautioned Roy saying," Keep your leg out of the aisle,Sir, the camels are coming in this way and they can be very mean." Roy looked at the man, pulled up his pant leg,knocked on his "Wooden leg" and said,"I know, I was here last year."

I could go on and on but the point I am trying to make is that elders can adapt to anything as long as they can keep their prospective as to what is really important.

What is important to us now in our 80's is that we have basic good health with our illnesses under control and our sense of humor intact.

What lovely notes you have today. They leave me smiling....grinning actually as I write a poem about forgetting.

What great comments today.I find that as we get older some change is thrust upon us and some we choose, out of a sense of adventure or to keep experiencing new things.

My good friend Chris, a teacher, became a nurse in her '60s. I'm in Mexico for a month to see if I might want to move here. (My husband died a year ago after 9 years of Alzheimer's.) I've always loved trying the new.

And I'm a Big D Democrat!

Thank you for your comment about my comment,Ronni. I find that change is inevitable and you either adjust or you become very unhappy.

I have a friend who, at the age of 79, just got back from his semi-annual big trip. He went to South Africa for the second time and when he came back I asked him how he held up. He said he didn't have any trouble at all and was very pleased at how well it went. He has a severe arthritic condition (a name far too long for me to remember) but you would never know it. He is busiest person I know and volunteers at two organizations in addition to having a very active social life. His days are so full I wonder how he finds time to eat.

This man is a living example of making the best use of the free time that retirement gives him. He has been all over the world and is close to reaching the 100 countries on his bucket list.

Money and illness may prevent some of us from following his example, but there are other things we can do. Learn a new skill, go back to school, or follow that dream you had when you were young and didn't have time to pursue.

Old age can be a blessing if we make good use of our freedom. I believe that most of us do count this stage of our life cycle as an opportunity to learn new things.

So don't tell me any of us are 'stuck in our ways.' It simply isn't true.

Guess what? Most people (of all ages) are stubborn and resistant to change. Have you ever tried to get a 2-year-old to do something? Change a teenager's mind? The difference is, that when an old person does it, it gets framed negatively as "set in their ways."

I am not offended. I have had this discussion many times, and expect that it will probably occur many more in my lifetime. When I say "nature", I do not mean behavior, but our core self. The phrase "teaching an old dog new tricks" is just that -- "teaching ...tricks". It is not changing someone's nature. I think it is most likely that the author of the NYT article in TGB on Tuesday, is still the same, rather self-focused, not particularly giving, person that he presents himself as currently. And I don't think he is llikely to have an epiphany and change this before the end of his life. However, he can certainly change many of his behaviors, if he so chooses; it's just unlikely that he will.
I have, myself, learned many new things in the pst twelve years, since turning 50, and expect to keep doing so, including holding new jobs. The one I have currently as caretaker of my 92 year old mother-in-law, is not one I would have expected to hold even as recently as five years ago.

Behaviors are not natures. Natures are pretty much what we are born with, and most people tend to stick pretty close to what they were like from birth. Adaptation, as in Nancy's delightful comments, is not nature. We tend to adapt according to our natures, well and gracefully, or with resistance and bitterness.

I think you're correct to point out that seniors are not necessarily "stuck in their ways" — at least, they are not more stuck than any other age group. How many times, for example, have we heard toddlers beg, "Do it again!" when Dad spins them around by the arms? And why do children tend to choose the same bedtime stories over and over? And why do so many teenagers, for whom the stereotype is about being different or rebellious, seem to dress like each other, talk like each other, and wear their hair in similar styles? People of all ages feel more confident among the familiar. That doesn't mean we can't learn new tricks; it simply means that doing so requires a certain intentionality. Some people exercise that intentionality more easily than others.

As long as I am mentally and physically able, I'll be making conscious decisions about my actions, reactions, and behavior. I am older now, and wiser. I have more years of experience to guide my decisions, and if I appear to be "unwilling" or "unable to change," you should assume it's because I've concluded that the status quo is my preference. As long as my mind still works, I will continue to assimilate new information and evaluate my position and if the facts warrant, I will change. Why would anyone assume that age means I've lost my free will or my eagerness to learn?

We're here, reading a blog. Leaving a comment. Writing our own blogs. Navigating our smart phones and Kindle Readers. Sending out photos from our digital cameras. We are NOT stuck – you are absolutely right, Ronni.

SuzyR here. I used the word “tend” in my statement yesterday. That word has a lot of wiggle room in it. And I do think we “tend” to stick to certain of our beliefs. "Tend" doesn't mean we can't or won't change. Nor does it imply an inability to adapt to life's changing situations.

I have adapted to the loss of my husband (a huge life change) and to several other life changes, while at the same time firmly sticking to some of my beliefs, such as my belief in a woman's right to choose. I am entrenched in that belief. I am also, for example, 100% sure I will vote for a certain candidate for president in the next election.

I view you, Ronni, as firmly entrenched in some of your beliefs—this is an observation, not an accusation—such as your belief in needing to expose what you perceive as ageism in all of its forms. Would you be able to relax that belief, or abandon it? I don't think so, because exposing ageism is one of your, may I say, missions. Exposing what you view as certain political problems is another area in which you have entrenched yourself, even as you express exhaustion at feeling a need to engage in those battles.

I "tend" to have a more relaxed view of, for example, old-age jokes. I "tend" to not get worked up too much by the goings-on in politics. I "tend" to think things will work out okay in the end. If they don’t, then I will, of course, adapt.

Each of us is born with a certain basic personality, and we are pretty much stuck with it for a lifetime. I think that's what Cathy meant when she said, "I have come to believe that people cannot change their natures."

The core of who we are is unlikely to change, but we can, and do, change many variables that surround the core. We grow, we adapt, we carry on ... but, again, I still think we "tend" to entrench in many of our views as we grow older, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. When we are young, we experiment, and as we grow older, we keep some of what we have learned and toss a lot of the rest. We find our own way of being.

My mother, at age 95, has adapted to a heck of a lot during her life, but she remains firmly entrenched in her religious beliefs (not my beliefs, btw) while being flexible in some other views. She is living proof that we can adapt and entrench simultaneously.

As I see it, your hope, Ronni, is that most of us will, permit me to say, gather in the trenches with you and do battle with you against what you see as certain injustices or problems. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It all depends upon one’s point of view.

Some of us have a more relaxed view, and there's room for that on this planet, too. Your comments related to my comment of yesterday have provided me with a sort of teaching opportunity, too, and I appreciate it. Thank you.

“Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” ~ Dr. Seuss

It's one of those days and I can't take much time with this but regarding your statement:

"I view you, Ronni, as firmly entrenched in some of your beliefs—this is an observation, not an accusation—such as your belief in needing to expose what you perceive as ageism in all of its forms. Would you be able to relax that belief, or abandon it? I don't think so, because exposing ageism is one of your, may I say, missions."

Your implication is that I am incapable of "relaxing" my "mission."

Of course, I COULD give it up - if I didn't care anymore. But I never will because ageism kills - actually kills old people in numerous ways and way too few people take it seriously - that is, until someone they know dies from neglect, physical or financial abuse, lack of medical treatment, etc. It happens every day.

My concern for elders and my exposing ageism when I see is has nothing to do with being stuck in my ways which we're discussing today. You are mixing apples and oranges.

Loved reading about this topic and altho' I do forget things, I can only speak from my experience. In my early twenties and first job after college, my mother sent me THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE and asked my for my opinion. I am embarrassed to say that I debunked the concept and said that I would be happy to devote my life to my marriage! ('50's thinking) My mother grew in wisdom and understanding as she aged and was a wonderful example for me in assessing attitudes and beliefs and I so often miss her when I am reminded of her changed thinking about politics, interpersonal relationships, sexuality, religion, etc. With age often comes increased wisdom and understanding or else brain death!

Those of us born more than 40-50 years ago have had to adapt to enormous and accelerating change. We had to be adaptable, we had no choice.

I think the key word here you use Ronni is "adaptability". Elders do change - adapt - but do so gracefully and with more thought. In this age where information moves in nano seconds elders have learned to "sleep on it" and give things time to gel and materialize before we buy into something, especially with those ideas and gadgets we are less familiar with and that seem to be evolving at too rapid a pace.

Perhaps a good visual for this are those commercials where the camera has been able to focus on a single individual moving about normally where his or her world around them and everyone else are moving at double and triple time speeds.

We're changing (elders) but at a rate commensurate with our experiences.

You missed my point, but that's okay.

Ageism kills. That is exactly right, Ronni.

My grandfather gave me the best answer to this question. After he retired from a very busy life, his daughter, my mother, often gave him books to read as gifts on special occasions. She gave him Churchill's THE SECOND WORLD WAR (a 6 vol set). I was still in high school and my curiosity got the best of me, so I asked him, "Why do you still read all of this?" (or words to that affect). He looked at me and very calmly said, "When you stop learning, you're dead."

I have never forgotten that. I have repeated it to myself and reminded myself of that fact for all of my very long life. It works for me.

I appreciate your words of wisdom, Ronni. I believe as long as you have an active mind, nature/personalities/character can and do change.
At 83+ years of age I still think of myself as a work-in-progress.
I seriously question how anyone who has followed your blog for any length of time could think you are 'set in your ways'. To me, you have a curious mind and think deeply.

Sic 'em, Ronni.
I am far less conservative and set in my ways at 73 than I was at 21, 30, or even 40.I have a compassion for the downtrodden now I certainly did not have at any of those ages.

All my adult life I have had to adapt to change, especially t 6 years ago, when at 62, my whole world turned upside down due to Hurricane Katrina. I reinvented myself in a new city with a new job and new apartment and see myself about to embark on another reinvention in a few years when I really retire and return to our community college ( free for seniors) to study studio art. I have raised 2 generations of children, have had a successful teaching career and look forward to many new adventures in my encore life!

I have to agree with Cathy. I don't think people can change their natures but that's different from being set in one's ways . Being set in one's ways means being closed minded, and that can afflict anyone at any age.
Keeping an inquiring mind, like Miki's grandfather said, keeps us alive and engaged in a world that changes around us everyday.

I agree, though, that it is maddening to have all elders placed under that "stuck in their ways" umbrella when it might apply to anyone no matter the age.

Hurray for you, Ronnie! You said much that needs to be said and with well chosen support as usual.

Really glad to read this today....because I was starting to believe in this myth myself (about myself!) Glad to read the de-bunking so that I could set myself straight!

I don't think you should have reprimanded the commenters by their names--that is, by the names they post by. You could have made your point by saying "two comments to my blog said ....."

I appreciate SuzyR's comment above. I think she makes the point well that people, including old people, can be "entrenched." (And I love the idea that we can "adapt and entrench simultaneously"!) Ronni, in your response, it seems you actually agree with SuzyR — but you would probably prefer a word like "committed" or "devoted" rather than "entrenched." And maybe that's the crux of the issue. It seems that when an older person is "devoted," people are more likely to give it a derogatory label than to assume it is an intentional, wise choice based in decades of experience.

Being committed to fight ageism is one thing; being rigid and literal is another. Zealously policing any less than positive “words” about old age precisely amounts to “being stuck in one’s own way”. Further more, insisting there is only one “right” way to aging is, unfortunately, another form of ageism. It denies the diversity and richness of the aging process and treats old people as if they were a monolithic group devoid of individual nature or tendency.

We all have a great deal to learn from one another.

I agree that people "tend" to stay with what is familiar in beliefs, in personal style and activities. We often say that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. However, it is important to point out that this tendency is part of human nature--it is not by any means exclusive to older people. And it is definitely true that older people who have a much wider breadth of experience, who take time to reflect on that experience generally come to the conclusion that very little in life is absolute. They actually become MORE flexible than their younger counterparts. I think the reason older people have a bad wrap in this regard is that those older people who do not reflect and find meaning in their lives (Erikson's Integrity vs. Despair) give the appearance of being "stuck in their ways." Stubbornness is often an attempt to exert control, when one feels powerless.

Funny how the people giving examples of "adapting elders" describe people with lives that have becoming boring, uninspiring, and focused on preventing illness or death. The complete antithesis of what amounts to an attractive life in the mind of a young man or woman, the kind of life that sparks our fantasy or imagination. And people really do not become different in this regard when they grow older. They respond to the same fantasies, their living, thriving mind is the same. They just start to accept that it is not possible, that it can't be, that you can't live a life like that when you get older. This is what is being called "being set in your ways". Being able to adapt to illness has NOTHING to do with it. It is all about giving UP the life you dream of. But I can't find a word or expression in English that describes this. In Dutch I would say "vastgeroest" and it has very strong connotations in this direction.

It is also a simple fact of life that learning happens a lot faster in young beings. Let's say that time goes a lot faster when you are young. When you get older you get a different perception of time. When you hit 30, looking 10 years into the future suddenly isn't such a long time anymore. The pace of life slows down, and so does the rate of change. Youth provides for daily renewal, the difference between a 1 y/o child and a 2 y/o child is much much greater than between a 71 and 72 year old person. That being said, how many older people still have the zeal and lust for life that they had when they were 20? How many are still expanding their mind, reading books, pursuing a life's mission? The whole idea of retirement is the thing you should be fighting if you want to fight ageism. Older people should ALWAYS remain active in society, because their life doesn't end at 65.

So if someone says they are "enjoying their retirement" and then goes on to prove that they are still "adaptable", well, you have ageism right there.

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