Bridging the Gap: Young Adults Perceptions of Aging.

Numerous studies over the past few decades have concentrated on the changes that have occurred in the various types of relationships individuals experience across their life course. Demographers point to the fact that today's older adults are living longer than they ever have for various reasons, many of them relating to advancements in medicine and technology. Such advancements have led to an increase in the amount of interaction between older adults and younger adults, sparking an interest in how younger adults view the aging population.

When studying the ways college students perceive and judge older adults, the process of aging, and the expectations they have for their own future as older adults, it is important to recognize the various intergenerational relationships that exist in refining these perceptions. The frequency of households headed by grandparents raising grandchildren in the United States has increased to nearly 2.5 million. (1)

For younger adults who do not have existing relationships with family members who are older adults, it is likely that they can attribute the ideas and stereotypes they have of aging adults to other inlets such as the media, popular culture, and other experiences with older adults whether at home, at work, or in interactions in the community. Despite the increase in intergenerational contact, negative stereotypes of older adults and the aging process remain a persistent problem in the United States. This study examines the attitudes of American college students regarding their perceptions of older adults, the aging process, and their own expectations of aging into their older years.

Literature Review

Increased Life Expectancy for Older Adults

Today's older adults are living longer than the same demographic did in the past. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau in 2021 show that an estimated 16.8 percent of the United States population consisted of individuals aged 65 years or older. (2) For the purpose of this research, age 65 and older is the definition of "older adults," in line with the Administration on Aging of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (3) The percentage of older adults is expected to increase to over 21 percent by 2034. (4) As this age group is growing extensively from year to year, there is a high demand for professionals educated in assisting and caring for aging adults in need. Between 2020 and 2030, it is predicted that healthcare occupations will add around 2.6 million new jobs in order to better accommodate the growing number of aging adults. (5) Further, the same study stressed that the importance of these professionals working alongside the older population is to better understand the aging and dying processes. The fact that older adults in America are living longer will affect the presence of intergenerational relationships across the life course. Increased likelihood of these relationships among family members must be affecting (and will continue to affect) the ways that various generations view, treat, and observe one another. (6)

Challenges Facing Older Adults

The dramatic increase of the older adult population has shed light on several health concerns surrounding older adults. One of the more pressing issues is the lack of resources that are available for the aging population and the family members who care for them. (7) Unavailable resources, such as emotional, educational, and financial resources, are pertinent to maintaining the well-being of older adults; increasing these resources can tremendously improve their overall health and quality of life. Another resource that seems to be unavailable is specialized health care for chronic conditions. Older adults are often unable to manage the problems that come with chronic physical conditions and the lack of education and information surrounding these conditions only worsens the suffering. However, many older adults have family members who are willing to step in and care for them with any chronic conditions they might have. It is estimated that family members save the health care system $470 billion per year. (8) While this may seem like a benefit on the surface, when one looks deeper, they will see that, in reality, it is creating an unending dilemma for these families. As families take off work to care for their older family members, they are missing out on paychecks. Over 75 percent of care-taking adults reported significant out of pocket expenses related to their caregiving. (9) The number of working families that had to face this challenge caused the reform of the medical leave policy. The updated policy included that family members were allowed to take up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave to care for a parent with a serious health condition. (10) The downside to this, however, is that chronic health conditions can last much longer than twelve weeks, leaving older adults without care, or leaving family members in a predicament between working for pay or taking care of family. For older adults without family to take care of them, they have no choice but to rely on the healthcare system. Medical assistance can be very costly, and unfortunately, Medicare does not cover all the expenses that older adults might need. To accommodate the growing population of older adults, there must be a change in the health care system to provide a better range of practical care for this cohort. (11) Thanks to the growing elder population, coupled with the increased demands for caregiving, more Americans today are confronted with aging and its challenges than previous generations.

Concerns and Fears about the Aging Process

Elizabeth L. Hay, Karen L. Fingerman, and Eva S. Lefkowitz (12) conducted a study to observe the worries that adult children have for their aging parents. Primarily, it was observed that adult children mostly worried for their parents' health. Adversely, aging parents worried most for their children's health, safety, relationships, and finances. (13) When it comes to mental illness, such as memory loss, and seeking help for those illnesses, both younger and older adults felt similarly in that they believed people should seek help for any mental problems. However, older adults were more likely to feel that mental illness was embarrassing, and this could potentially create a difference in willingness to seek help for mental illness in the future. (14) Similarly, Alissa Dark-Freudeman, Robin L. West, and Kristen M. Viverito (15) studied the concept of "possible selves"--specifically in the domain of memory and cognition of older adults in the future. They found that memory loss with age is one of the "most dreaded" characteristics of an individual's own future self. (16)

Findings from an analysis of a longitudinal study of the trends and perceptions of older adults from 1974 to 2000 concluded that, in 1974, adults under the age of 65 perceived loneliness to be a more serious issue for older adults than issues such as job opportunities and medical care. (17) In contrast, older adults from the 1974 sample were more likely to report fears of not having enough money, having poor health, and being victims of crime. (18) Yet, by 2000, both age groups were more concerned about older adults having the financial means to survive. These findings show how the concerns surrounding older adults have changed over the past three decades to reflect that more and more older adults are suffering financial strains and worry. (19)

Intergenerational Interactions

When studying the ways that college students perceive and judge older adults, it is important to recognize the various intergenerational relationships that exist today. In fact, there has been a recent trend of increased households headed by grandparents raising grandchildren. (20) According to sources, grandparents in the United States are gaining new roles when it comes to grandchildren because grandparents are often out of the work force at the time their children are mostly at the height of their careers. (21) There has also been an increase of children living with grandparents and being responsible for primary care. In addition, with the increased cost of living expenses, the number of multigenerational households has continued to rise, from 7 percent in 1971 to over 17 percent in 2021. (22) These relationships with older adults are often what create the perceptions and stereotypes of both younger and older generations. For younger adults who do not have existing relationships with family members who are older adults, it is likely that they can attribute these ideas and stereotypes of aging adults to other inlets such as media, popular culture, and other experiences with older adults.

College Students'...

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