Getting older is an inevitability that scares most people. Our culture doesn’t just promote hiding behind anti-aging products, but also prohibits productive discussions on a wide range of taboo topics that affect the wellbeing of older adults. We polled our readers to learn which issues people are most afraid to talk about when it comes to aging.
Ageism surfaced as the root cause of many taboos. Aging itself is often “shamed, denied, or punished,” said one Stria reader. “Once ‘old’ (i.e., retired, gray-haired, over 65) one’s opinions are not valid, ‘heard,’ or worthy of consideration,” said another.
“Once your eyes are open to ageism in society, you start to notice it everywhere,” explains Charlie Visconage, digital content manager of LeadingAge. “This is what led me to the concept of our podcast Aging Unmasked, which looks at things about older people that are totally normal but no one talks about.”
Here are the top five aging taboos reported by Stria readers.
Second only to America’s obsession with youth, is our obsession with work. As people approach retirement age, many just don’t know what to do with their time and energy.
“The challenges of retirement are extraordinarily complex and often leave individuals feeling like their lives have little purpose,” explained a Stria reader. According to another, we need “open dialogue about how to fill a void that often defined working individuals.”
While some recognize that the over-65 set have valuable skills, many more continue to hold onto misperceptions about the contribution older people can make. You told us that “ageism and segregation of older adults is dividing society and wasting many of our greatest contributors to society.”
As one reader put it, our country has an “aversion to honest discussion of the aging process and acceptance that older adults, like young kids, may need different resources.” It seems that often these needs center on decline—both cognitive and physical.
Despite the growing prevalence of dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease, several readers felt that cognitive decline is a top taboo subject. One possible reason, said social worker Erika Brown at the Los Angeles Department of Aging, is that “people don’t have the training or maybe the situation came out of the blue, and they don’t know what to do.”
Meanwhile, Americans over 65 represent 14 percent of the total population and use more than 30 percent of all prescription drugs. These numbers include a high rate of pain management drugs. Yet Stria readers report that few people are willing to talk about the reality of how pain medication and addiction affect our older generation.
Also taboo when it comes to pain management: medical marijuana. This despite the fact that 80 percent of older adults say they strongly support its use with a doctor’s consent, according to AARP. An episode of LeadingAge’s podcast Aging Unmasked also identified medical marijuana use as a common taboo.
“Elder abuse that predominantly occurs within families is very hard to bring to light and address,” shared a Stria reader. According to the National Council on Aging (NCOA), nearly 1 in 10 Americans over the age of 60 have experienced some form of elder abuse. But we’re still afraid to talk about it.
“Elder abuse is often under-reported because the older adult population is often overlooked in the media,” Brown told Stria. “But elder abuse is a form of domestic abuse. And seven out of 10 times the abuser is someone that they know, like a family member.”
Perhaps one of the most taboo subjects in aging is sex according to Stria readers—especially women and sex. “We should talk more openly about sex, intimacy and aging,” suggested respondent.
Sex over 65 is a reality: 54 percent of men and 31 percent of women over age 70 reported they were still sexually active. It’s also a frequently overlooked health matter. Many older adults are contracting sexually transmitted diseases (there’s been a 20 percent increase) and care facilities do not often have policies to foster privacy and protection for its residents.
Plus, sex is different when you’re older. Sexual needs change both physically and emotionally. Talking about it helps older adults have healthier and more satisfying sex lives.
End-of life issues were by far the most-reported aging taboo for Stria readers. You named taboos around “ways to die gracefully,” “naming a power of attorney and making end of life decisions,” “suicide” and “withholding and withdrawing treatment,” among others.
“We are all going to die, but not being able to talk about death and how you want to die causes a lot of problems,” explained Caroline Cicero, a professor of Gerontology at USC Leonard Davis. For instance, only one-third of Americans have an advanced directive, according to a report published by Health Affairs.
“Aging parents believe they will be the ones taking care of each other; therefore, they have not delegated responsibility to their adult children,” wrote a Stria reader. “They have not/will not share their wishes for end of life care/decisions with any of their children.”
The other thing to consider is that: “Not everyone can age well. And not everyone has good health, genetics, location in life, etc.” said Cicero. And if we can’t talk about it, we can’t help those who need help to age and die gracefully.”