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Myths of Age Quiz

People old and young believe a lot of twaddle about elders. I first wrote about that during the inaugural year of this blog, 2004, when hardly anyone was reading it.

A portion of Erdman Palmore's Facts on Aging Quiz had appeared online (the page is gone now) and I used it to help readers test themselves about what age myths they might still believe.

Palmore is emeritus professor of medical sociology at Duke University, a gerontologist who is a widely respected expert on aging and ageism with several books on the those topics to his credit.

It might be useful for TGB readers to try his quiz now, a decade later. Given your often enlightened and enlightening comments on this blog, I expect you to do well:

  1. The majority of old people – age 65-plus – are senile.
  2. The five senses (sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell) all tend to weaken in old age.
  3. The majority of old people have no interest in, nor capacity for, sexual relations.
  4. Lung vital capacity tends to decline with old age.
  5. The majority of old people feel miserable most of the time.
  6. Physical strength tends to decline with age.
  7. At least one-tenth of the aged are living in long-stay institutions such as nursing homes, mental hospital and homes for the aged.
  8. Aged drivers have fewer accidents per driver than those under age 65.
  9. Older workers usually cannot work as effectively as younger workers.
  10. More than three-fourths of the aged are healthy enough to do their normal activities without help.
  11. The majority of old people are unable to adapt to change.
  12. Older people usually take longer to learn something new.
  13. Depression is more frequent among the elderly than among younger people.
  14. Older people tend to react slower than younger people.
  15. In general, old people tend to be pretty much alike.
  16. The majority of old people say they are seldom bored.
  17. The majority of older people are socially isolated.
  18. Older workers have fewer accidents than younger workers.
  19. More than 20 percent of the population is now 65 and older.
  20. The majority of medical practitioners tend to give low priority to the aged.
  21. The majority of old people have incomes below the poverty line, as defined by the U.S. federal government.
  22. The majority of old people are working or would like to have some kind of work to do, including housework and volunteer work.
  23. Old people tend to become more religious as they age.
  24. The majority of old people say they are seldom irritated or angry.
  25. The health and economic status of old people will be about the same or worse in the year 2010, compared with younger people.

Answers: All odd-numbered statements are False. All even-numbered statements are True.

However, by 2050, No. 19 will be true and I suspect that with the growth in numbers of elders as the boomers age, No. 20 may no longer be true or will not be much longer. I don't know if No. 25 is still so or not. The original quiz was published in 1976 and updated twice, in 1988 and 1998.

The page I linked to in 2004 with explanations of the answers is gone now so the only place to find Palmore's commentary, I suppose, is the book which is not currently in my budget.

There is a modern myth of aging that I believe has developed too recently for the good Professor Palmore to have addressed in his quiz updates: that the best, most admired kind of elders are those who most resemble young people, those who “act young.”

So people like the first President George Bush, who jumps out of an airplane every few years (most recently on his 90th birthday last month), are held up as exemplars of good aging, a standard to which all others, it is implied, must aspire or they will be tagged with having failed old age.

Mainstream media loves to tell stories of “redefining old age” by recounting the few who run marathons or take on daredevil motorcycle stunts or, a few years ago, three who made it to the top of Mt. Everest.

That's fine for those people and I certainly don't begrudge them their effort and thrills but they are not anywhere near the average elder anymore than the young who take these risks represent the average in their age groups.

Also, I don't see these extreme sports elders as particularly brave – or perhaps I mean that their kind of bravery is least impressive.

The media ignores all the old people who day in and day out keep on trucking in the face of cancer, Parkinson's disease, varieties of disability and dementia that commonly afflict the aged along with always, in our late years, the near prospect of certain death.

These days I would add a 26th – even numbered, therefore true – statement to Professor Palmore's quiz: Being old requires more courage than other stages of life and most elders accept the challenge with grace and forbearance.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Henry Lowenstern: Rhymer's Lament


You got it. :)

I did well with the quiz but I like and agree with your #26.

Thanks for these facts, Ronni. I think there's such a misconception about what it means to age and the things that go along with it. Additionally, you bring up great points about media sensationalism related to those who are "redefining old age." What about all those who have done amazing things throughout their lives, who have continued to persevere in the face of challenge? This post provides so much great insight into ideas of what it means to age, and to triumph over it. Really, though, living at any age is a triumph and a true joy, and that's what needs to be celebrated. Everyone has a story that deserves to be heard.

I don't disagree with what you say about the media, but in their defense, they also ignore young people who just keep on truckin'. Something needs to be unusual in order to be news, so older people who take on unusual pursuits get featured.

I think it would be very interesting if a media outlet decided to do a feature on "what it's really like to get old" in which ordinary elders could be interviewed about the challenges they face as a result of being old. Of course, if this were a mainstream media outlet, we'd be talking to ourselves, because only older people read newspapers or watch TV news.

"most elders accept the challenge with grace and forbearance".... because, as my 90 year old mother said, "Why should I complain? Who wants to be around a cranky old lady?"

She'd lived long enough to know that "it is what it is" becomes more meaningful the longer one is on the planet.

The perception, and treatment,of older people will never change as long as the 18 to 36 year old's are in charge of and pandered to by the media, advertising and fashion worlds.

Unfortunately I figured out the math of the quiz before getting all the way to the bottom.

I missed No. 19, but after reading the rest of your column I discovered that I may have had it right all along.

George Bush had help from a young person holding him as he descended toward the Earth so I do not find his feat that impressive.

There was an elder 93 year old man who had parachuted behind enemy lines during the D-day invasion and he repeated his jump this year by himself. Now that's impressive.

But you couldn't get me to try that stunt with or without help. The most thrilling thing I do these days is finish the laundry in one day.

Your last 7 paragraphs are so important I'm going to quote you in several different places, with attribution of course. Thanks for saying it.

Why the optimism re #20 - that medical practitioners will start thinking better of older peeps?

The only reason I would jump out of a plane would be if it was on fire and crashing, at any age. As for number 20. I have a great internist who is very interested and respectful of elders, with other specialists I have seen over the last 5+ years it is about 50/50 between being treated like a rational adult and a idiot. There's a lot of work to be done there.

Like on most quizzes, the answers to most of these questions are "it depends." I definitely don't fall neatly into the true/false pattern which is supposed to be the correct one. I'm not senile but have lost some sight, hearing, taste, etc., have no interest in sex, lung capacity nowhere near as good as in younger days, miserable---if that means in pain---most of the time. Physical strength? What's that?

But still live at home, drive like a champ, could work rings around younger pups if I wanted to and learn as fast as ever. "Normal activities" have taken on a whole new meaning, so don't even try to do things I used to do. Reactions? Don't know. Seldom tested.

Not much like any of the other old people I know, but wish I knew some more interesting ones, like the ones on TGB. Socially isolated, but not bored. Would be falling on my tush (or head) all the time if I didn't watch every step carefully.

My personal medical practitioner is a robot who gives low priority to health care. Period. Personal income healthier than I am. Tried working post-retirement but same old, same old, so I quit because I could. Housework? No thanks.

Wasn't religious then. Not religious now. Angry all the time at the s**t that's happening all over the U.S. and the world. Deal with anger the old-fashioned way---by commenting on The Nation or Politico or Salon.

#26 is a wonderful and very welcome addition. Thanks.

As for the media, a great many people are under their mid-30s, they relate to their peers and think that's what everyone wants to read or see on TV. Movies are made for young people and explosion of YA (young adult) books is another indication of who's making the choices. I'm tired of all the dumbed down media. Thank heavens this blog and a handful of others talk to me and my peers.

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