At OLLI event, an initial skeptic of aging debunks common myths of getting older

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PITTSFIELD — People are afraid of getting older, but those fears aren't based in facts about what happens to bodies when they age. They are based in ageism, said Ashton Applewhite.

During more than 10 years of research for her book, "This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism," Applewhite learned that, despite common fears, a low percentage of seniors end up in nursing homes or diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, and that people tend to be their happiest at the end of life.

"I cannot tell you how skeptical I was when I started out," Applewhite said during an Osher Lifelong Learning Institute conference Thursday at Berkshire Community College. "Slowly, my point of view began to change. Getting older was certainly going to be different, and probably a lot better than, the grim slide into depression, diapers and puffy white shoes of my nightmares."

Applewhite was the keynote speaker at OLLI's event, "Living Longer, Living Better: Changing the Culture of Aging." The conference, which was broadcast in other parts of the state, featured breakout sessions on topics that included health care, civic engagement and social participation.

Opening up the event, Applewhite debunked common myths about getting older and encouraged guests to participate in the movement against ageism.

The number of Americans older than 65 who live in nursing homes is 2.5 percent, and only 9 percent for those older than 85, she said.

Outside of people who live in nursing homes, 90 percent of those older than 65 are "cognitively fit."

While the total number of cases of Alzheimer's is rising, it can be attributed to people living longer, she said.

"The odds of any one of us in this room being diagnosed with Alzheimer's are getting lower and lower, and people are being diagnosed at older ages," she said. "The real epidemic is anxiety about memory loss, and that anxiety is bad for you."

Ageism, which is perpetuated through capitalism, culture and the media, is responsible for these stereotypes, she said. And the myths that older people are frail and incompetent aren't just rude or isolating, they can be "self-fulfilling prophecies" and are dangerous to health, she explained.

It causes discrimination at work, the underreporting of elder abuse and poor-quality medical care.

It's older people, she said, who tend to be the most ageist, because they've had more time on Earth to be exposed to and absorb societal stereotypes.

"Do you ever grouse about entitled millennials? When you get to a party, do you make a beeline to people your own age? Have you ever rejected an outfit or relationship or haircut because it's not age-appropriate?" she asked the crowd. "For adults, there's no such thing. All these behaviors are ageist."

The stereotypes also are reflected in a lack of "all-age-friendly" infrastructure in cities and towns.

When that infrastructure, like parks, sidewalks and public transportation, is put in place, it benefits everyone.

To combat the stereotypes on a community level, Applewhite encouraged individuals to surround themselves with a friend group that is diverse in age, to not allow the fear of "sticking out" to keep them from participating in events and to ask for help when they need it.

As for ageism in health care, some seniors end up with "less treatment, worse treatment, oftentimes no treatment at all" because, traditionally, doctors have brushed off ailments as a sign of getting older.

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"If your doctor says, `At your age, what do you expect?' it's time to find a new doctor," Applewhite said.

Locally, health care providers are working to address the issue of geriatric care.

With a population that is living longer, and with Berkshire County having a high percentage of individuals older than 65, Baystate Medical Center in Springfield and Berkshire Health Systems are trying to prepare for a higher number of geriatric care patients.

In a breakout session focusing on health care, Dr. Maura Brennan, chief of the Division of Geriatrics & Palliative Care at Baystate, talked about the discrepancy between a growing senior population and the stagnant number of specialists prepared to care for them. The specialists who do practice tend to be clustered around larger Massachusetts cities, with fewer in the areas that tend to have higher populations of seniors.

While that's not good, she said, the positive side is that it's propelling the industry to make quality geriatric care part of mainstream health care by simplifying screening and procedures.

"Now we have a unit at the hospital that is dedicated exclusively to the care of older people," Brennan said of Baystate. "It's not perfect, but it's better than it usually is."

Those in the unit are screened for confusion, and staff takes them on walks in the hallways and monitors them for being at risk for falls.

The change in care has improved the use of drugs, the number of patients tends to be less confused, "and go figure, the costs are down and people are going home earlier," she said.

In Berkshire County, which has one of the lowest average household incomes in the state, health care leaders are working at connecting patients with community resources that can assist them at home, according to Dr. Mark Pettus of Berkshire Health Systems.

At the hospital or physicians offices, Berkshire Health Systems staff are screening patients older than 65 for their fall risk. Based on the assessment, they are put in touch with community resources, navigators or social workers who can be of assistance, Pettus said.

"Berkshire County has a tremendous legacy of nonprofits doing this work, but we realize that people need a great deal of work in supporting their lifestyle," Pettus said. "The days of the physician, he or she, autonomously driving care has rapidly evolved to a physician as an orchestra conductor with teams of individuals who can help guide the priorities of the people they serve."

Leah Reed, a minority engagement officer for Dementia Friendly Massachusetts, is part of one of those teams.

Her work has been to bring people of color, who tend to fall through the gaps when it comes to aging care, into the fold.

The African American community tends to be less likely to reach outside its family for help in caring for older people and reluctant to participate in research.

"When I was a child and my grandfather had Alzheimer's, there wasn't a word for it. The word was `senile.' `That's just your granddaddy's way,' " Reed said. "He could have had a better quality of life had our family sought medical care."

Understanding this, Reed has begun hosting dementia events at local churches, focusing on connecting people to resources.

"There is a huge barrier in my community in seeking assistance and guidance on how to deal with this," Reed said at the session. "My role is to bridge that gap."

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at horecchio@berkshireeagle.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.


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