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Importance of a positive approach to ageing (self-fulfilling prophecy explained)

Dr Michael Roberts is ExtraCare’s Engaged Lives Project Officer, working within the Engaged Lives project to build community in our villages. Here, Michael introduces the Positive Ageing movement and outlines what ExtraCare is doing to promote its key messages.

What do the words “old age” make you think of?

Perhaps you’re imagining a stooped figure with a walking stick? Someone who spends all day inside, watching the television? Or someone who’s cranky and resistant to taking on anything new?

These are some of the countless, negative stereotypes that are common in the UK. They also completely fail to reflect the spectrum of experience across the country’s older population.

Take our very own Barrie Pountney, resident at ExtraCare’s Earlsdon Park Village. Now in his seventies, Barrie completed the 311-mile London to Paris Cycle Challenge earlier this year, the latest in his long line of endurance challenges. More broadly, consider people like Brenda Deane, former accountant, who set-up her first business making candles and room diffusers at the age of 82, or famous crime-writer John le Carré, 88, still pumping out best-selling novels two years shy of his tenth decade.

These individuals remind us that not every “elderly” person is bent-double like the figure in the road-traffic sign, or lacking in drive and mental-sharpness. In fact, age needn’t be a barrier to staying fit and active, or to contributing great ideas and initiatives to society.


Negative stereotypes of aging

Our preconceptions about old-age have a huge impact upon our experience of it. In fact, they often act as self-fulfilling prophecies – if you think of older-age as a time of inevitable physical and mental decline, then you’re much more likely to find yourself facing those very things.

A growing body of research indicates that older people who manage to steer clear of negative ageing stereotypes, and adopt more positive visions of later life, show significant improvements in measures of physical and mental health over their more pessimistic counterparts. These people heal quicker. They walk faster. They have lower risk of dementia and cardiovascular problems. They also have better memories, less anxiety and, most strikingly, live an average of 7.5 years longer.

It’s thought that much of this effect stems from the fact that negative ageing stereotypes cause people to lose a sense of control over their health. This leads to feelings of hopelessness, decreased health behaviours and increased reactivity to stress. Put differently, people who think physical and mental decline are unavoidable parts of ageing are likely to exercise less, eat less healthily, visit their GP less frequently, and adopt more psychologically-harmful mindsets, all of which tend to bring on the very things they are expecting.

To help counteract these effects, it’s important to think also about the positive aspects of ageing and those individuals who defy ageing stereotypes. This is something being promoted by the emerging “Positive Ageing” movement.

Positive Ageing theorists like Guy Robertson, author of the upcoming Ten Steps of Positive Ageing, remind us that negative stereotypes don’t only make older age more difficult, they also blind us to the advantages and opportunities that age presents and act as a real barrier to enjoyable and engaged lifestyles.

Japanese retirement

In Japan, for instance, retirement is spoken of in terms of “spring” or “renewal”, given that it can give us time to pursue interests and values that were crowded out in the midst of a busy life of work and child-rearing. Positive Ageing theorists also encourage reflection upon the wisdom and skills possessed by older people, as well as the fact that older people tend to experience less anxiety and closer relationships than those who are younger. Then there is the so-called “U-curve of happiness”, described in Jonathan’s Rauch’s The Happiness Curve. Rauch documents how people actually tend to be happiest towards the start and the end of their lives. Most people actually become happier in older age than they were in the stressful years of their 40s and 50s.

Reflect on the positive aspects of ageing

Of course, we need to be realistic. Ageing brings inevitable changes to the mind and body, not all of them positive. And no matter how optimistically we think about older age, few of us are likely to become Olympic gymnasts or professional footballers in these years. Yet, by reflecting on the positive aspects of age, and focusing on what still we still can do, rather than our limitations, it’s possible to sustain a much healthier, more active and more rewarding lifestyle into our later years.

Health benefits of volunteering for older adults

At ExtraCare, we already champion this central message of Positive Ageing, mobilising the assets and skills of our residents through extensive volunteering initiatives in our villages. The feelings of purpose, meaning and agency supported by such schemes help explain recent research indicating that ExtraCare’s residents show significantly lower levels of loneliness than the national average, as well as lower levels of anxiety and depression after moving in.

We have also recently launched the Engaged Lives project to push our commitment to Positive Ageing further, supported by the National Lottery Community Fund.

As part of this project, we ran a series of peer-support workshops in our villages, giving residents a chance to reflect upon their interests and values, as well as the strengths and skills that they can contribute to their communities. Through group discussion, we also myth-busted some negative-ageing stereotypes and looked at some strategies for staying active, confident, and engaged in face of the challenges of older age.

There is absolutely no reason that old age should be a time of isolation and loneliness. It should be a time in which we can all continue to enjoy a healthy and active social life, and we at ExtraCare hope the Engaged Lives project can promote the kinds of activities, mindsets and resources to sustain this. If you would like more details about the project, please get in touch with Michael at