When Does 'Old Age' Start? When You Stop Shopping

How old is old? New research finds that for most Americans, old age is not heralded in by a particular birthday, but rather by how a person acts.

In particular, people who still shop for themselves or take care of their own household chores are less likely to be perceived as old, new research shows.

A study by Oregon State University researcher Michelle Barnhart found that the ability to participate in certain activities, such as buying groceries or attending medical appointments, serve as a means of identifying whether someone is “old.”

The research was based on interviews with people in their late 80s, their family members and their paid caregivers.

"When people in their 80s or 90s exhibited characteristics that society tends to associate with people who are not old, such as being aware, active, safe or independent, they were viewed and treated as not old," Barnhart said. "In this way, they were able to age without getting old."

Often times, conflicts occur when seniors don't consider themselves old even though others may view and treat them that way.

When these conflicts arose, older consumers used various strategies to negotiate their identity, such as trying to convince others of their “not-old” identity through verbal arguments and trying to prove that their still-youthful status by independently performing activities. Another strategy was to force a change, like shutting out their younger family member entirely, Barnhart found.

While many of the adult children of the elderly consumers examined in the study were of the opinion that baby boomers would change how people view old age, Barnhart thinks that is unlikely.

"Unless we change the way we view old age, the generation younger than the boomers will treat them the same way as soon as they show a few more wrinkles, or seem a bit shaky on their feet," she said.

Barnhart said that a loss of independence or the need to get help from others doesn't have to result in seniors being devalued and marginalized by society.

"Everybody ages, you can't stop that," Barnhart said. "But what we can do is respond to someone's limitations in a way that preserves dignity and value."

The study, which interviewed consumers in their late 80s, their family members and paid caregivers, will be published in the April 2013 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.

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