Perceptions of Age Are Tied to How We Consume, Not Wrinkles

If you don’t want other people to see you as old and frail, you should fret less about wrinkles and focus on shopping smartly, using current technologies and driving safely. Do these tasks capably and independently, and younger people will see you and treat you as youthful and energetic, which in turn will affect the way you see yourself, according to a study co-authored by Oregon State University marketing professor Michelle Barnhart with Professor Lisa Peñaloza of Bordeaux Management School.

Marketing research often focuses on products people consume to create, enhance or flatter their sense of self. (For example, a study of male consumption theorized that men wanted their purchases to signal that they were “bread winners” or “rebels.”) Barnhart focused instead on how people in their 80s and 90s consumed, whether they needed help getting to a point of purchase like a grocery store and whether they needed help to make decisions about purchases, such as an assisted living condo or a large kitchen appliance. Assistance and intervention were key factors in whether other people branded the person as “old” and how old that person actually felt.

That may sound like bad news to the 20 percent of Americans over age 75 who need help with driving, housekeeping and grocery shopping.

“But the take-away message from this study is hopeful,” Barnhart says, “because we found that so much of how older people are treated depends on perception and things we can control.”

Barnhart interviewed 20 seniors in their 80s and 90s in Los Angeles, Colorado, rural Texas, upstate New York and Connecticut, and then interviewed their children and caregivers. She found that younger Boomers suddenly perceive their parents as old-verging-on-feeble when they start needing help with prosaic chores like getting to appointments and preparing meals—but that other factors, like what technologies we use and how we manage our Medicare, also play a big role. Her study will be published in the April 2013 Journal of Consumer Research. 

Perception trumps chronological age when younger people decide who is truly old, Barnhardt concluded.

“There is a difference between aging and being dismissed as old and invisible. We need to learn how to treat older Americans more respectfully. And there are ways that older people can maintain that respect. And that respect makes a big difference in how youthful an older person feels.”

People in their 80s or 90s who managed their daily tasks on their own were perceived as youthful—despite white hair and a slower gait. Family members and caregivers did not describe independent people as elderly or an “old person.”

Barnhart didn’t interview older people living in cities like Manhattan where it’s easy to get around by public transportation, she theorizes that the key to appearing youthful is not just sliding into the driver’s seat, but in exploring the outside world.

As we age, youthfulness is a quality intertwined with respecting ourselves, the study found. Hiring a cleaning lady may sound like a treat to a lot of women. But one housewife in her 80s was devastated when she felt her actual age the first time she hired a maid. “So much of the woman’s identity was invested in how she kept the house clean and beautiful all by herself; the house-cleaning was an extension of her identity and she felt a real loss without it,” Barnhart explained. “I met a gentleman who prided himself in being a great fix-it man and who suddenly felt very old when he was forced to hire a handyman because he couldn’t see well enough to make a repair.”

Finding new ways to take pride in yourself, through volunteer work or being an active and supportive member of a social circle, are crucial to feeling younger than your chronological age, according to the study’s findings.

And sometimes an alert, capable senior needs to demand respect rather than let people treat her like a stereotype. Barnhart offers the example of a woman who let her adult offspring drive her to a doctor’s appointment—and was immediately treated as doddering and dim-witted. The doctor would only speak to the 89-year-old Texan’s daughter about what was wrong with the mother and what she needed to do. Finally, the mother grabbed the doctor’s arm and said, “I’m sitting right here! Don’t tell her. Talk to me!”

If you’re looking for “aging without getting old” role models, check out UnitedHealthcare’s annual 100@100 survey.

The new survey finds that the current batch of seniors who hit the century mark are remarkably active, with 40 percent doing weight bearing exercises, and 11 percent practicing yoga and Tai Chi. These centenarians also attribute their vigor to socializing with a wide circle of friends of various ages, and 87 percent find something that makes them laugh out loud every day.

What energizes you? Tell us in the comments box below.


One response to “Perceptions of Age Are Tied to How We Consume, Not Wrinkles

  1. I am energized daily being with my pre-k and other young students. I might add that I’m also energized socializing with “seasoned citizens” around my age who, are as youthful as me. Still, I’m even more energized now since the birth in November of my new born baby girl!

    Mr. young “64”

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