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April, 2012, Vol. 12, Issue 04 >> Geriatrics & Senior Health

Looking Beyond the Stereotypes of Old Age

By Ann Catlin, LMT, NCTMB, OTR

There's a little quip that I've heard in senior communities that goes something like this: "I'm looking for Mrs. B., can you tell me what she looks like? "Yes, she's the one with gray hair and glasses!" Not that original, really, but you get the picture.

I've often been struck with profound awareness when I enter the dining room of a nursing home. At first glance it looks like a sea of gray heads and everyone sort of blends together. The quip suggests these old folks all look alike so they are alike and have morphed into some other kind of creature. At what point do we become one of "them"?

I have a psychologist friend who counsels young children. She once told me that she's effective because she doesn't talk down to the kids or treat them as "pre-people." Something about her comment rings true and, by comparison, I think we live in a society that views old people as "former people." But, when do we lose our individual identity and become a former person?

Since none of us are immune from cultural influence, perhaps it falls to each of us to question the collective attitude and see beyond the stereotypes of old age. Common language and images are a good place to start. We can pay attention to the words we use. Ever call someone a "cute little old lady?" We may as well pat her on the head! Media today is laced with messages that reinforce the idea of a monolithic group of older persons. I've used the phrase "Silver Tsunami." This term was coined in 2002 by Mary Maples to describe the aging baby boom generation that began turning 65 in 2011. But think about it. A tsunami is a force of nature that leaves destruction in its path. I went online to see how people defined the "Silver Tsunami" and on a blog I found this (sort-of humorous) explanation: "It means there are so many old people they're going to pile up in huge masses of wrinkled bodies, and they'll roll ashore, crashing into buildings and nuclear power plants." Perhaps "Silver Tsunami" isn't my best choice of words!

I can think of other times when my words really underscored the idea of an elder being a former person. I remember telling someone about a man in his nineties who "used to be a doctor!" Why are we surprised when an older adult continues to pursue activities of younger years? "Wow, she still rides a bike!" Self-reflection about our personal views of aging is important because we tend to internalize society's dialogue. Aging has become medicalized. Medicalization is when a normal human condition becomes seen as a problem in need of medical treatment. You don't have to look far to see evidence of this. Just turn on the TV or open a magazine. Aging is portrayed as something to fix, cover up, smooth out, and take (lots) of pills for. I've met many elders whose social lives revolve around going to the doctor and visits to the pharmacy. But something deeper happens in our psyche. As a society, we fiercely value autonomy, productivity and independence. But with aging sometimes comes the need to ask for help and physical decline, which we equate with a flawed existence. Feelings of failure and shame arise and we loathe the body that once served us so well. We begin to see ourselves as helpless and unworthy. We become former people even in our own minds.

Don't Touch-You Might Catch It!

Touch deprivation in old age is real. It occurs, in part, because of separation from loved ones, but mostly because of fear on the part of younger people. Fear of looking at old age up close and personal. I think that if old people are thought of as former people, the assumption is they no longer have the same needs as when they were younger. When it comes to touch, this idea really misses the mark! I'm always on the lookout for other experts who validate my convictions about the impact of massage for our elders. Jane A. Simington, RN, PhD, conducted a literature review and her findings were published in the Humane Medicine Journal. She reports that older persons report that touch conveys fondness, security, closeness, warmth, concern and encouragement, and makes them feel an increased sense of trust and well-being. They report that touch helps them to develop close, trusting relationships with staff and other residents. As tactile sensitivity decreases, the need to receive expressive touch may increase. Nature can be cruel however, and the elderly person often may have no one to provide this increased touch. The children are gone and the partner has died. One elderly woman put it this way, "Sometimes I hunger to be held. But he is the one who would have held me. He is the one who would have stroked my head. Now there is no one. No comfort."

Massage therapists can be agents of change and have the power to profoundly impact the quality of life for older adults by reversing the effects of touch deprivation. Of course, there are physical benefits of massage resulting in improved function in the activities of daily living. Massage alleviates aches and pains and improves circulation, resulting in greater ease of movement and the ability to perform physical tasks with greater comfort. We are all aware that massage induces a relaxation response, leading to improved sleep quality and feelings of calmness. Massage increases body awareness reducing the risk of falls. But focusing only on the physical benefits adds to the medicalization of aging. Rather than seeing massage as a treatment for ailments, let's look to it as a way to validate the human experience of aging. The gift of caring touch encourages feelings of self-acceptance and worthiness. But our influence goes even further. By literally reaching out to older adults, we demonstrate wholesome attitudes about aging. Maybe by our own actions we will encourage others to be more willing to touch our elders. Society as a whole stands to gain.


  1. Medical Anthropology Wiki, University of South Florida,
  2. Simington, Jane, RN, PhD The Power of Expressive Touch Humane Medicine Journal, Vol. 11 No. 4.
  3. Cruikshank, Margaret, Learning to be Old- Gender, Culture, and Aging (2003) Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Lanham, MD.

Click here for previous articles by Ann Catlin, LMT, NCTMB, OTR.


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