“I Don’t Like Old People”

When I was in graduate school, I went to a screening of a mutual friend’s documentary, The Mayor, on retirement home residents. During the post-screening discussion, a college-age girl exclaimed, “I don’t like old people but this documentary is interesting. I didn’t realize they have something in common with us.” One of my friends, a budding gerontologist, glared at the girl with much confusion.

A year ago, a colleague who worked exclusively with children and adolescents pulled me aside and said, “I really don’t like old people. I am so glad you enjoy working with them.” I was so taken aback that I failed to tell her although I wasn’t passionate about working with children and adolescents, I certainly didn’t dislike them as a group.

When new acquaintances find out I work with older persons, two common responses emerge: 1. “Oh, that’s a much needed profession and you’re going to make a lot of money;” 2. “Oh, it’s fun to listen to their life stories and you learn a lot!” What they say are not entirely wrong but these aren’t the reasons why I am in this field– I happen to like old people; and I like working with them.

Truth is, you don’t even have to like the people you serve in order to like the act of serving them. However, if you clearly resent them, it may pose a problem. Ever since I was a kid, I have often wondered why some health care professionals appeared to enjoy making fun of “the crazy” or “grandma.” It was only after I dived into the field that I realized ageism is very much alive in mental health care, as is mental illness stigma in eldercare.

What complicates matters is that ageism exists among older adults just as mental illness stigma survives among people with mental illness. When trying to dissuade me from recommending that she move to a nursing home, one of my 80-year-old clients used to say, “But those people in the nursing home are SO OLD!” I encouraged her to consider how she could help “those old people” with her positive personal qualities. To that she replied, “They’ll be too far gone to get my jokes!”


Here is a report put together by the WHO and WPA to reduce stigma of older adults with mental illness published almost 10 years ago. How much progress have we made in the past 10 years? What are your thoughts on that?



About C

If you consider volunteering at a luncheon for older adults as my first exposure to the field, I have been in geropsychology for at least twenty years. As family, friend, volunteer, trainee, and professional, I have found myself in adult day care centers, senior centers, senior living facilities, nursing homes, medical and psychiatric wards, hospice, and personal homes of older adults. Wherever I go, be it an orphanage, a museum, a prison, an airport, or a random corner in the neighborhood, issues related to aging and mental health often come to mind. I used to think that I could make a difference only if I became a top-notch researcher, educator, or clinician. As I continue to follow this meandering path, it dawns on me that as a nobody in the field, I can still add my light to the sum of light by sharing what I know. Over the years, I have "converted" a few very dedicated individuals to focus on aging-related work within their respective disciplines and encouraged a handful more to stay in this field despite its winding course. I believe by bringing aging and mental health issues to the foreground, we will amass a stronger force to promote advocacy, research, and quality care.
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3 Responses to “I Don’t Like Old People”

  1. C, I agree. Many, if not most, people think of aging in a negative light, and among people who work in long-term care, mental health issues take a back seat to physical concerns. This makes the role of mental health provider in a physical health setting all the more important, because we are educating the staff as well as the residents. As a nursing home psychologist, I see many residents who stay in their rooms because “there’s no one to talk to.” One of my goals is to get them to talk to each other.

    • Cookinglass says:

      Education is the key! I wonder how residents would respond to support groups that have a greater emphasis on mental health (perhaps marketed as “mental wellness groups”)? Resident support groups are becoming increasingly common but most take the form of an open forum that discuss “practical” issues. I also wonder if it’d be more feasible in an assisted living facility as opposed to a nursing home.

      • Someone wrote to me yesterday, letting me know of the popularity of the “Psychology of Human Behavior” class he’s facilitating at an assisted living facility. I think many residents would appreciate psychoeducational groups that could focus on general discussion of issues. For a more intense, introspective group that delves into the personal experiences of the residents, a trained group leader such as a psychologist, and advance selection of a limited number of regular group members is more likely to make such a group an emotionally safe and productive experience.

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