- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Where aging is concerned, perception trumps reality nearly every time. Six in 10 adults 64 and younger say they fully expect to have trouble coping when they are really old, at least where mental capacity is concerned. For example, they anticipate forgetting familiar names, according to a survey out Monday from the Pew Research Center’s Social and Demographic Trends project.

However, just one-quarter of the 65-and-older crowd report actually having such difficulties.

Seven out of 10 65-to-74-year-olds contacted in a late winter/early spring telephone poll for the survey, which Pew calls the most comprehensive of its kind to date, said they didn’t feel old at all. One in six said they saw themselves as much as 20 years younger.

As for judging personal well-being, older adults are practically sanguine in their answers. Just a “tiny share” of the respondents said they considered their lives to have turned out worse than they had expected. Nearly half said things have turned out better, while the rest reported things have turned out as anticipated.

Paul Taylor, the project’s executive vice president, who just turned 60, calls this finding a particularly powerful note: “There is a coming to terms with things that struck me as a reassuring grace note.”

As for the discrepancy between the advance fears of aging’s toll versus the more benign reality, “It is telling us in its way that human beings have difficulty getting their minds around the unknown,” he suggests. “What we see here is a tendency to overestimate.”

The survey reveals there even is a gap between how the older and younger generations define “old” and “aging.” Adults younger than 30 say old age begins at 60; the over-65 group says 74.

There also are some telling gender-based perceptual differences regarding aging. Men overall cite 66 as the start of old age, while women say it is 70.

Seventy-nine percent overall agree that one is older at 85, but just 13 percent think being “old” has anything to do with having gray hair. The latter statistic might be food for thought for hair-color companies that seek to exploit the fear of looking old in their marketing.

When it comes to judging states of mind — especially the subjective state known as happiness — age apparently doesn’t come into play. Life circumstances trump demographic issues; everyone wants good health, good friends and reasonable financial security. That is the case no matter a person’s age, sex, education, ethnicity or income, according to survey results.

Old and young agree on the need to talk about end-of-life matters such as how to care for an aging parent - with the parent, rather than the older child, typically broaching the subject.

However, the notion of a generation gap popular in the late 1960s also receives some vindication from the Pew results, with the generations expressing differing views on matters of morality, values and the work ethic.

There is another gap in how the generations use communication technologies. Not surprisingly, slightly fewer than half of seniors use the Internet daily, compared with three-quarters of those younger than 30.

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