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Elderly Americans defy myths. Most are healthy and live on their own, says statistics director

Joan Van Nostrand says many popular perceptions of elderly Americans are myths that deserve to be shattered. Statistics, she says, show they are far more robust, independent, and generous than younger Americans think them to be. Mrs. Van Nostrand should know. She is deputy director of the division of health care statistics of the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the federal government's Department of Health and Human Services. She also is program chair of the 21st national meeting of the Public Health Conference on Records and Statistics, which opens a three-day meeting today in Washington. The many myths about the elderly are to be discussed during the conference and, before it is over, shattered like so much cheap crockery.

``We really do have a myth,'' Van Nostrand says, ``that the aged are all ill, and require a lot of care, and that their families have abandoned them to the public sector to take care of.

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``None of these myths is true,'' she said, noting that a small minority of elderly Americans is in this plight.

``The majority of them are living in their own homes - about 95 percent of them. They're active and living in the community.''

Some elderly Americans are ill, she says, but ``just because one is 60 or 70 or 80 does not mean that they are [automatically] ill,'' and most are not.

Although some residents of nursing homes remain there for years until they die, most do not. ``About two-thirds of the people'' who enter nursing homes ``come out in less than six months,'' Van Nostrand says.

Most elderly Americans can take care of their personal needs, such as cooking and dressing, without assistance: the number that ``need someone to help them in these activities is very small, somewhere between 2 percent and 10 percent.''

One of the myths that dies hardest holds that many elderly Americans, in or out of nursing homes, have been abandoned by their children and families, who refuse to have any contact with them. Studies show that picture is untrue, Van Nostrand says: ``The elderly have a lot of social contacts with their families. They are not abandoned.

``They see them, they talk on the telephones. That's true of people [in their own homes] in the community. It's also true of people who live in nursing homes.''

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What about generation-skipping relationships between older Americans and the young, which some hold to be more conflict than cooperation?

Studies provide a much more generous view, Van Nostrand reports, that ``in many cases older persons are providing a lot of support for the younger ones. It's been my experience that older persons do a lot of giving more than they do taking. They provide a lot of [tender loving care] and, in many cases, funds to help [the young] get started.''

It is extremely important, she says, that myths be demolished and replaced with accurate facts.

``Policy and decision makers at all levels of government'' require accurate information to decide how to deal with what definitely will be a major societal change,'' as the number of elderly Americans soars over the next half-century. ``The data,'' she notes, ``are very important'' to understanding and planning for the future.

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