Changing Perception of Seniors by Future Caregivers – Power of a Picture

Let’s face it, we are all aging. Many of us are caring for aging family members as well, loved ones who appear to age in front of our eyes. We know their worth to us — priceless.

Americans have not always looked upon aging as they do today. Older people were not the ideal. Wrinkles were something many paid to have removed, along with sagging skin. Men “aged well” while women just aged.

As a society, we tend to set age limits on when someone should “move on”, receive the golden watch and enjoy an alternate life and hobbies — whether or not the individuals are ready to make that change.

The sight of an older person using a walker or wheelchair was enough to make many cringe.

Many of our former beliefs about aging adults, their worth and wisdom have been changing. Some societies have always honored their elders so this is not a new philosophy to them.

Aging Perceptions Subject of New Research

Recently we came across a new grant study that will explore perceptions about aging individuals using participants who are medical and nursing students.

Photographs that portray realistic images of older people, from healthy men and women to a dependent person about to be hoisted onto a bed, were used by researchers to explore stereotypes and ageist perceptions.

Viewing the variety of images shown will spur discussion about feelings and breakdown barriers for people to care for our aging population. The hope it that it will also help to develop tools for future use with students to help them understand how to best interact with aging patients and improve the seniors’ level of care.

Science of Forming Perceptions

The visual process in human beings is part of our central nervous system. When an image is presented to us, our eyes see the image and pass the information on through the visual cortex which processes the image sending its message to the brain.

According to a recent study, our eyes, really our brains, can process one visual image every thirteen milliseconds. That’s right, milliseconds. Previously it was thought we took 100 milliseconds to process. The eye works to get an image to the brain rapidly so it can determine what to look at next. Interesting huh?

However, the basic biology of actually seeing an image and the perception we form of the image are unconnected. How does our mind form our perceptions of what we see? Because our perception is unrelated from the actual vision, we need to understand that our perceptions are formed and influenced by our experiences, values, morals and ethics.

Our perceptions are as unique as each individual and are a result of our environment. Stereotypes are learned and formed by the individual.

Would a picture, even seeing numerous images over time, change our perception of the image? Maybe not on its own. However, as they will do in this study with healthcare students, discussing the images and what they represent can allow the individual in the group to form new perceptions or alter their current perspective and stereotypes. Stereotypes are usually long held and require new information to be updated. Interacting more with seniors and seeing firsthand their abilities even in the face of illness will also help mold new perceptions.

Personal Experience

I have been passionate about caring for older adults for most of my career. I have been a personal and professional caregiver for seniors. I love interacting with them, hearing their life stories, talking about the way things were “back then”, learning about their families and origins, where they traveled and lived, and doing everything in my power to make their days more comfortable and healthy.

While I was in college, I had the opportunity to work in a variety of facilities with my peers as part of my training. I was the rare bird who enjoyed the seniors with whom I was able to work. I loved being with them and getting to know them. However, my peers who were primarily young women, wanted nothing to do with older patients. They were scared to be in a nursing home or even a rehabilitation center. One student even fainted on the unit.

Treating someone with stroke or head and neck cancer was apparently mentally painful for most of the other students. Many could not bear to see an older person in a wheelchair, for it reminded them of their own grandparents. At the time and especially today, I just never understood that way of thinking. They didn’t scare me but really inspired me!

I am proud of my wrinkles and gray hair, for I know it is outward evidence of the experiences I have had in my life. I love to travel, learn, read, and interact with others gaining new insights. I don’t exactly know how I would have achieved what I have thus far without embracing seniors along the way.

I am thrilled to learn that we, as a society, are realizing that our young people may need help to see older adults more clearly as competent, wise, and worthy people in need of respect.

Have you faced stereotypes from healthcare personnel when interacting with them on behalf of your senior loved one or seen them experience that themselves? Feel free to share your story, we would love to learn as it is by learning that we grow.