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What are you afraid of?

What are you most afraid of?

Responding to a random thought related to all that’s going on in the news lately, I Googled the phrase, “feelings of fear in the older adult.” My query elicited this: "Big dogs, thunderstorms, public speaking, heights.”

For me the answer is a longtime fear of bats. In fact, I have a hard time typing that word without a slight shiver. Which prompts me to ask, "Is there a changing shape to fear as we age?” The answer may be yes.

In a 2006 research study, people of all ages were asked to rank threatening situations by looking at photographs; those photos involved extreme sports, weather disasters, etc. The oldest old “consistently rated ‘high danger pictures’ as a significantly lower threat than younger adults.” Apparently that research was not conclusive, but it got my attention and kept me thinking — which is a good thing.

Geriatric mental health specialists indicate the fears common to older adults include the “fear of death, concerns about disaster events within their own families and dental procedures.”

For the record, I would rather have a root canal than have to look at a photograph of a bat. There are some aspects to all this we may not have fully considered.

A recent study at the University of Minnesota (my alma mater) found that a fear of ebola was “highest among people who had not paid attention during math and sciences classes.” As illustration of the vivid power of this finding, one participant in the study was told he had “a one in 13 million chance of contracting the virus.” His response was, “Whoa, 13 million is a really big number. That is totally scary.”

The U of M researcher who conducted the study, Davis Logsdon, puts the number of people who did not pay attention during math and science classes at 72 percent. And then he adds (understandably), “I seriously doubt most people will know what that means.”

What I think it means is: Whoa, we need to pay attention.

A recent article in the Sunday New York Times (Sunday, Oct. 26, 2014) explored this further. In the piece, “What Are You So Afraid Of?” the author seemed to suggest my fear of bats might come from a childhood incident involving a bat on a bath towel in our family’s tiny bathroom. I remember the moment well, but if I did not, my siblings would be glad to provide animated and slightly exaggerated details about my noisy, hysterical reaction.

The more I learn about bats, the less I fear them. The more we learn about anything that elicits fear and anxiety, whether it is an infectious disease or a terrorist threat, the better able we will be to handle it.

It seems like there’s a lot of mounting fear and hysteria right now, and perhaps we older adults need to lead the way in modeling how important it is to stay calm and carry on.

As for me, I am waiting for someone to remind us, as our president did in 1933, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Sharon Johnson is a retired Oregon State University associate professor emeritus. Reach her at Sharon@hmj.com.