The Truth About the “Grumpy Old People” Stereotype
stereotype Grumpy old man sitting in a wheelchair outdoors

We’ve all heard the stereotype and seen the videos, movies, and images that reinforce it: a grumpy old man yelling at kids to get off his lawn or a mean old lady living alone in a huge, creepy house on the hill. While these images are undoubtedly part of our cultural fabric, they’re also an unfortunate series of myths that is perpetuated on a regular basis. If we’re being honest, most of us have believed the “Grumpy Old People” stereotype at one point or another and many of us may still believe it today.

As it turns out, however, this stereotype is unfair and untrue. In recent years, research has come to light that suggests that, despite what our cultural norms may tell us, aging individuals often become happier and more open as they age rather than becoming angry and closed-off.

Here’s what you need to know.

Where the “Grumpy Old Person” Stereotype Falls Short

According to a recent study conducted by researchers at Northwestern University, it’s not at all uncommon for seniors to become more trusting, more open, more positive, and generally happier as they age. The researchers behind the study concluded that these findings were the result of the fact that seniors are more willing to trust other people than their younger counterparts were. This, in turn, led to increased happiness levels over time. How’s that for doing away with the “You darn kids get off of my lawn!” image?

In addition to making seniors happier, this increase in trust also had marked biochemical effects. Namely, seniors who were more willing to trust the people around them experienced elevated levels of oxytocin – the hormone associated with intimacy and attachment. Multiple studies have linked oxytocin with a decrease in dangerous conditions, like chronic pain, and have associated it with faster wound healing, lower stress levels, and even recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Many people who hear that seniors are more willing to trust other people immediately worry about seniors becoming so trusting that they place themselves at risk of elder abuse. Fortunately, studies have found that this is not overwhelmingly the case. In fact, researchers have found that trust and well-being are actually associated in a positive and mutually beneficial fashion and that trust is not ultimately a liability for aging seniors.

With this in mind, it’s clear that the “Grumpy Old People” stereotype is not a fair one and that, more often than not, people become more trusting, loving, and affectionate with age. In fact, seniors are often more agreeable in terms of “The Big Five” personality traits than their younger counterparts.

Understanding The Big Five

Most modern psychological studies are based on five personality traits, known as “The Big Five.” These traits are as follows:

  • ExtroversionExtroversion refers to a person’s level of social willingness, excitability, and expressiveness.
  • Openness: Openness measures openness to new experiences, new friendships, new imaginative pursuits, and the likes.
  • Agreeableness: A person who has a high level of agreeableness is highly altruistic, trusting, and kind.
  • Conscientiousness: Conscientiousness is a term that is used to refer to a person’s overall organization capabilities, willingness to set goals, and ability to be thoughtful.
  • Neuroticism: Neuroticism refers to measurements like moodiness and instability in emotional well being, including anxiety and depression.

While the Big Five are used to evaluate psychological study participants of all ages, a National Institutes of Health study conducted in 2009 recently revealed that, while 75% of seniors (ages 60 and older) experience changes in The Big Five personality traits, the vast majority of these changes were for the better. These findings back up the Northwestern study by proving that seniors generally become more agreeable as they age.

Another National Institutes of Health study took the evaluation of the Big Five one step further by looking at personality traits across all age groups on a global level. This study revealed that all cultures believe, to some extent, that young people are impatient and older people are inflexible and grumpy. The study also found that each culture evaluated was guilty of severely overstating these differences.

The takeaway? While our personalities do change as we age, there’s no scientific evidence to prove that we are guaranteed to become angry or closed-off with age. This proves that the “Grumpy Old People” myth is both undeserved and unfair. While cognitive impairment and dementia can certainly change a person’s personality for the worse, most seniors experience positive rather than negative changes in personality as they age.

Where the “Grumpy Old People” Stereotype Comes From

Studies that evaluate seniors on the basis of the Big Five do consistently find one negative effect of aging: the levels of “openness” seniors display generally declines as people get older. This is likely due to a variety of factors, including decreased mobility, embarrassment about memory loss, isolation, and even illness. Because decreases in openness are fairly common, it’s likely that this is one of the things that contributes to the stereotype that seniors are unwilling to try new things or are “set in their ways.”

Unfortunately, this stereotype is unfair. While many seniors are hesitant to try new things, it isn’t because they’re grumpy or mean – it’s often simply because they are experiencing some difficulty adjusting to a new life phase. While openness may decline with age, there are many things family and loved ones can do to help seniors become more open to new experiences once more. These include the following:

  • Locate a class the senior will enjoy. If a senior loved painting years ago and hasn’t done it in decades, accompanying him or her to a painting class is a great way to help the senior open up to new experiences. Often, the most difficult part of trying new things for seniors is getting over the initial hump, after which point the senior may be more than happy to go alone!
  • Providing plenty of interaction. One of the primary causes of decreased openness in seniors is isolation. As seniors become more isolated, their confidence and cognitive function begins to decline, which can make building new habits much more difficult. Ensuring daily interaction with a senior is one of the best ways to prevent this from happening.
  • Get moving. Exercise is good for everything – including a senior’s openness levels. To help the senior make new habits and meet new friends, consider helping him or her find an exercise class, such as yoga or water aerobics, that will be enjoyable.
  • Take it slow. Imagine how you would feel if someone forced you into taking a new class or hanging out with a new group of people. It would be uncomfortable, wouldn’t it? Because of this, it’s important to avoid forcing a senior into anything. Instead, take the entire process slow and be sure to respect the senior’s wishes and input as you move along.

While some seniors do certainly experience a decrease in openness with aging, the deaths of spouses, or illness, these steps can help family and loved ones encourage seniors to step out of their shells and experience life once more.

Bucking the Stereotype: How Preconceived Notions Hurt People of All Ages

Caregivers know that it’s fundamentally unfair to label an entire group of people blindly. While some seniors may be less open than others, it’s a far cry to say that all seniors are grumpy, closed-off, angry, and spiteful. It’s also blatantly untrue. Multiple studies have shown that aging individuals tend to become gentler, kinder, and more trusting with age. In light of this, it’s time to kick the “Grumpy Old Person” stereotype to the curb.

When we label an entire group of people according to untrue preconceived notions, we sell all the individuals within that group short. The truth is, there are plenty of seniors who see their golden years as the perfect time to give back to the communities they love, be it through volunteer work or community service. These seniors are often bright, happy, outgoing individuals who are, unfortunately, overshadowed by undeserved stereotypes.

In light of this, it’s clear that taking each senior on a case-by-case basis is the way to go. Additionally, by understanding that the seniors who do seem “Grumpy” are often suffering from difficult disorders such as dementia or depression, we can expand our compassion and begin to understand aging on a whole new level.

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