Myths and Facts About Older Ones

Myths about old age abound. “Ageing—Exploding the Myths,” a publication of the World Health Organization’s Ageing and Health Programme, exposes the fallacy of some of these myths. Consider a few examples.

Myth: Most older people live in the industrialized world.

Fact: Actually, over 60 percent of the world’s 580 million older people live in developing countries. An increasing number of people in these lands are reaching old age as a result of better health care and improvements in sanitation, housing, and nutrition.

Myth: Older people have nothing to contribute.

Fact: Older people make substantial contributions by doing work for which they are not paid. For instance, an estimated 2 million children in the United States are being cared for by their grandparents, with 1.2 million of them living in their grandparents’ home. Thus older people provide shelter, food, and education and convey cultural values to their grandchildren while enabling mothers and fathers to continue as members of the work force. Likewise, in the industrialized world, many volunteer organizations would not function without the contribution made by older people. They are also much-needed caregivers. In some developing countries, where up to 30 percent of the adult population have contracted AIDS, older people care for their infected adult children, after whose death they will have to raise their orphaned grandchildren.

Myth: Older people leave the work force because they can no longer perform their jobs.

Fact: They more often leave the work force because of disadvantages in education or training or because of ageism (prejudice against the elderly) rather than older age in itself.

Myth: Older people do not want to work.

Fact: Older people are often excluded from paying jobs despite their willingness and ability to continue working. Especially during periods of unemployment, it is often argued that older ones should leave paid employment to free up places for younger job seekers. However, the early withdrawal of older workers from the labor force does not necessarily translate into jobs for the young. A younger unemployed job seeker may not have the skills needed to take the place of an older worker. Experienced older workers help to ensure the maintenance of productivity and the stability of the work force.

With these facts in mind, notes the World Health Organization (WHO), the world community should view its aging population as a source of expertise that can be put to good use. Alexandre Kalache, group leader of WHO’s Ageing and Health Programme, therefore notes that “countries . . . should see their ageing populations not as a problem but as a potential solution to problems.” And that is a fact.