January 1984 // Volume 22 // Number 1 // Feature Articles // 1FEA4

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Middle Age: A Time for Thinking About Being Old

Given the graying of America and the current attitudes held by society about older people, the educational opportunities to Extension abound. This study reports the results of one approach.

J. Conrad Glass Jr.
Associate Professor
Department of Adult and Community College Education
North Carolina State University - Raleigh

Elizabeth S. Knott
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Foundations
Texas Woman's University - Denton.

We live in a youth-oriented society. "Being young" is preferred to "being old" and "getting old"isn't something individuals want to happen to them. Numerous research efforts have documented the fact that all segments of society hold negative attitudes toward aging and the aged.' The literature also suggests that the attitudes others hold toward older people are critical for the adjustment and, perhaps, even the survival of older people! The attitudes of others appear to affect the older adult's own self-image, feelin s of adequacy and usefulness, and attitudes toward living. Negative views of aging, life in general, and the self may result in an unwillingness or inability on the part of the elderly to seek needed services, health care, and other types of help.3

An equally important aspect of this whole issue is the matter of how such negative attitudes toward aging affect how younger people approach the aging process within themselves. Many people actually fear growing old, and try to retard or cover up their aging. Many try to disassociate themselves from this process. As Bevan states:

The key in the problems of aging is not natural resources or the know-how of the medical and behavioral sciences. It is a fundamental change in attitudes.4 To improve the quality of life of our older citizens, we must change the negative attitudes exhibited by various segments of society. Extension can play a role in this process. Some work has been done with 4-Hers.5 But, there are other target groups that have often been overlookedand one of these is the middle-aged population.

The attitudes of the middle-aged take on importance when you consider that the people of this age group are most often found in positions of influence and decision making. Knox has elaborated on this phenomenon: The middle generation of adults between their thirties and their sixties tends to carry the burden of concern for programs, pennies, and progress. As members of the middle generation, they usually hold positions of power and responsibility in which they are expected to deal with public problems. The middle-aged, then, have a great impact on the treatment of the aged for they control the policies and programs many older adults depend on. In addition, the middle-aged wield a great deal of influence as the norm-bearers who help form the attitudes of the young. It's important to remember that attitudes and policies imparted by the middle-aged today are most likely the attitudes and policies by which those same middle-aged adults will be judged when they move into the aged population group themselves. To improve the quality of life for older citizens now, and when we become old, we must change the negative attitudes exhibited by the middle-aged toward the aged.

Workshop on Aging

In an effort to see if middle-aged adults' attitudes toward older people could be changed in a positive direction through a learning experience, we developed a leader's guide for a 12-hour workshop (6 two-hour sessions) entitled "Facts and Fiction About Aging." Ten such workshops were conducted throughout North Carolina-six by Cooperative Extension, two by technical colleges, and two by four-year state universities. Each institution advertised the workshop through its own publicity channels. The individuals who responded to this recruitment process and participated in the workshop series comprised the experimental groups. The control groups were selected by each institution or organization to be similar to those participating in the workshops.

Nature of Workshop

What was the workshop like? The topics dealt with such areas as:

  • Myths and realities of aging.
  • Problems and satisfactions of aging.
  • What will I be like when I get old?
  • Physical and emotional changes of aging.
  • Adjustments to aging.

A variety of teaching methods were incorporated in the workshops. Through these methods, the adults were encouraged to express their feelings about old people, aging in general, and their own aging in particular.

The workshop began with music Portraying images of aging. The music helped the participants "get into" the topic of aging through a medium they could understand and which had a strong emotional component. Songs by the Beatles ("When I'm Sixty-Four" and "Eleanor Rigby") and Simon and Garfunkel ("Bookends Theme Song" and "Old Friends") were among those used. Slides, films, and filmstrips were used to refute some of the common stereotypes about old people and to emphasize the individuality of old people, the variety of their needs and desires, and the joys and satisfactions to be found in older age.

Other activities included making a collage of newspaper and magazine Pictures, drawing a Picture of oneself as a 69-year-old, and deciding what epitaph one wanted on his/her tombstone. A panel of four or five "Positive" older adults participated in one session and told about the problems, joys, and satisfactions of being their age. One of the most Popular activities was designed to help the middle-agers "feel" some of the visual and hearing problems associated with aging. The participants paired off and read a small-print article to their partner. The reader used glass frames covered with cellophane and the listener used cotton earplugs. The workshop participants were quite Positive in their evaluations of the learning experience. They found the sessions "interesting" and "thought-provoking." Many expressed the feelings that "the various teaching techniques kept the workshop lively."

Impact of Treatment

The study employed the pretest-Posttest research design. The experimental group (89 people) participated in the six two-hour workshops, while the control group (73 people) received no instruction, but completed the pretest and posttest. All of the workshops were taught by local people oriented in the use of the leader's guide. Extension agents and/or lay leaders from the local community taught the workshops sponsored by Extension. Attitudes toward older people were measured by the Kogan OR Scale in both the pretest and posttest. The Kogan Scale consists of 34 statements about older adults. The respondents were asked to agree or disagree with the statements on a scale of 1 to 6, representing responses varying from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree." The higher the scores, the more positive the attitudes toward older people. A general information questionnaire was also used as a pretest. Least-squares analysis was the statistical procedure used to analyze the data.

With a range of possible scores from 34 to 204, a score of 119 (the midpoint) was considered a neutral position. At the time of the pretest, both the experimental and control groups had identical means (143). The sample of our study can be characterized as possessing a slightly positive attitude toward older people. Such a finding is contrary to what was expected based on the research cited earlier.While the data indicated there was no difference between the experimental and control groups (.05 level of significance) at the beginning of the study, a significant difference (.007 level) existed between the groups at the conclusion of the learning experience. The control groups showed a decrease (-5.1) in attitude scores, while the workshop participants showed a small, but positive, increase (2.7) in scores.


While the amount of change evidenced in this study was small, it was statistically significant. This change indicated that participation in the workshop experience did make some difference in the experimental group's attitudes as compared to the control group's. It should be emphasized that this change occurred over a short period of time. Given the fact that these adults spent years developing their attitudes toward older people, it's encouraging that change could be noted in such a short time. This change makes you wonder what might occur with more exposure over a longer period of time.

It's important for individuals to have positive attitudes toward older people and toward aging itself. Extension should be concerned with developing more positive attitudes within society. Here are some ways Extension might go about changing attitudes:

  1. Start by conducting a workshop for your local Extension staff. Agents are dealing with older adults on a day-to-day basis in most program emphases. If we have negative attitudes toward older people, it will affect how we relate to our older clientele; and it will most likely affect how or if these older people respond to Extension. In addition, if we're more sensitized to older people, we may be more open to new ways in which our program areas can be relevant to this segment of the population. If your staff is small, you might plan a workshop with staff in adjoining areas.
  2. Design workshops for people in the community who work directly with older adults-both professionals and volunteers. Such workshops could be held in cooperation with other agencies in the community. Extension might conduct the workshops or instigate the planning for such learning experiences.
  3. Conduct a workshop for 4-H leaders. It's i mportant that 4-H volunteers, many of whom are middle-aged, have positive attitudes toward the aged and the aging process. These volunteers have influence not only on the potential programs and service projects of 4-H related to aging and older people, but also have influence as normbearers for the youth with whom they work. Ideally, these volunteers should model positive aging norms for the 4-Hers.
  4. Offer such a learning experience to the public in general. Many middle-aged (and younger) people will be interested in learning more about aging. They may have aging parents and, therefore, feel a need to learn more about the changes and factors influencing their parents. The mid-lifers may have questions about their own aging. Remembering that these middle-agers are those most often found in positions of influence and decision making, it would seem that if more positive attitudes can be created in this group, the potential exists for solving or improving many of the public problems surrounding older people.


While aging isn't a pleasant subject for most people, the fact remains that all people (who live) eventually must grow old. Education about aging and for aging is a need for all human beings-particularly the middle-aged. Extension can have a hand in this educational process. Workshops such as the one described here can be held. Such educational experiences can bring about an enhancement of the quality of life for present-day older adults and may go a long way toward guaranteeing a better life when we become a member of the older generation!


  1. D. G. McTavish, "Perceptions of Old People: A Review of Research Methodologies and Findings," The Gerontologist, XI (Spring, 1971), 90-101; J. Tuckman and 1. Lorge, "Attitudes Toward Old People," Journal of Social Psychology, XXXVIII (May, 1953), 249-60; L. Harris and Associates, "The Myth and Reality of Aging in America" (Washington, D. C.: National Council on Aging, 1975), p. 231; and B. S. Sadowski, "Attitude Toward Elderly and Perceived Age Among Two Cohort Groups as Determined by the AAAT," Educational Gerontology, III (January-March, 1978), 71-77.
  2. R. Bennett and J. Eckman, "Attitudes Toward Aging: A Critical Examination of Recent Literature and Implications for Future Research,"in The Psychology of Adult Development and Aging, C. Eisdorfer and M. P. Lawton, eds. (Washington, D. C.: American Psychological Association, 1973), pp. 575-97; E. Kahana and R. M. Coe, "Self and Staff Concepts of Institutionalized Aged," The Gerontologist, IX (Autumn, 1969), 264, 267-77; and R. F. Ross and C. Freitag, "A Comparison of Adolescent and Adult Attitudes Toward the Aged," Educational Gerontologist, I (July-September, 1976), 291-95.
  3. Bennett and Eckman, "Attitudes Toward Aging," pp. 575-97.
  4. W. Bevan, "On Growing Old in America," Science, CLXXVII (September 8,1972), 839.
  5. J. Conrad Glass, Jr., and Curtis Trent, "4-Hers Learn ... We Shall All Be Old!" Journal of Extension, XVII (March/April, 1978),10-13.
  6. A. B. Knox, Adult Development and Learning (San Franciscoi Jossey-Bass, 1977), p. 54.
  7. N. Kogan, "Attitudes Toward Old People: The Development of a Scale and an Examination of Correlates," Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, LXII (January, 1961), 44-54
  8. For specific information, write to J. C. Glass, Jr., Department of Adult and Community College Education, 310 Poe Hall, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, North Carolina 27650.