April 20, 2016
Until recently, society, in general, has regarded aging as a problem. This view on aging has impacted all aspects of life for the older generations, including healthcare, the workplace, housing, and end-of-life issues. However, a change in society’s attitude towards aging is gradually taking shape as people are living longer, healthier lives. The realities of modern-day aging are slowly but surely overcoming the various myths relating to this time of life.
It’s Not About Aging: It’s About Living
American culture has for too long glorified youth, resulting in a society-wide meme that growing older is something to be dreaded. Now, aging people themselves are showing the rest of society that they are not going to be consigned to a rocking chair but instead are fully capable of realizing greater potential and seizing new opportunities to learn and grow. Society is being forced to reach a newer, more life-affirming understanding of what getting older is really all about. It’s definitely the right time to reimagine aging so that seniors are regarded as integral and inspirational assets to be leveraged by our evolving society.
What Older People Can Accomplish
It’s a fact that plenty of people hike the Appalachian Trail after the age of fifty – the oldest thru-hiker was a seventy-four-year-old woman. If we want to disrupt or redefine aging we should focus on and celebrate the amazing feats of others who are defying the stereotypes of aegism. Want to get a sense of what is possible? Here is a list of twenty-five older individuals who did not sit around waiting to get older but went out and accomplished a variety of things that they had always wanted to do – 25 Oldest People To Accomplish Amazing Feats.
If you want to get a quick pulse on what other thought leaders are saying, an influential book is Ashton Applewhite’s engaging work, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. The book is dedicated to Applewhite’s mentor, the pro-aging activist Dr. Robert Butler. It sets out the case for ending age-based discrimination and Applewhite drives home her points with the use of some trenchant language:
- “My darkest nightmare was the possibility of ending my days drooling under a bad botanical print in some ghastly institutional hallway.”
- “Take ‘middle age,’ to which so many cling like flotation cushions, although who knows where the middle lies anymore?”
- “The Helen Mirrens and Judi Denches of the world are forging a footpath that needs to become a highway.”
- “I used to think that those [‘senior moments’] quips were self-deprecatingly cute, until it dawned on me that when I lost the car keys in high school, I didn’t call it a ‘junior moment.”
- Applewhite proudly embraces the role of “Old Person in Training,” stating that the process to become one “acknowledges the inevitability of oldness while relegating it to the future, albeit at an ever-smaller remove. It swaps purpose and intent for dread and denial. It connects us empathically with our future selves.”
Is Sixty Really the New Forty?
What about all those ads proclaiming that “fifty is the new thirty” or “sixty is the new forty”? This is a nice sentiment, but, in reality, people in their fifties or sixties face different challenges than the younger people they are being compared to. Their motivations are shaped by the wisdom they have gained from experiencing the ups and downs of life that younger people still have to find. They don’t necessarily want to be thirty again – they are more purposeful individuals because of what they have experienced in the years between thirty and sixty.
A New Third Age
Today’s older people are a generation of makers and doers who continue to explore their possibilities and to celebrate discovery over decline. Their opportunities are not limited by age, and their experiences have real value. Of course, society needs to ensure that Medicare is strong enough to provide people with access to care and services to enable them to lead long, healthy lives; and that Social Security will provide them with the financial support to match their longer lifespans. As Jo Ann Jenkins, CEO of AARP states: “At AARP, we truly believe that age and experience can expand life’s possibilities for every member of our society. When we disrupt aging and embrace it as something to look forward to, we can begin to discover the real possibilities for becoming the person we’ve always wanted to be.”
What Can Older People Learn From All This?
- Own your age. Be proud of telling people that you are seventy-two because the important thing is who you are, and what you do – not how old you are. Embrace your age and feel good about where you are in life.
- Just as an individual should not be defined by race or sex, don’t let yourself be defined by age. Don’t let society decide what’s possible or not possible for you because of your age.
- Look forward to your years ahead instead of looking nostalgically backward.
Society’s concept of aging is changing because seniors themselves are forcing it to evolve. “The possibilities for society of this new third age can hardly be seen now, obscured as they are by misconceptions and prejudices –– age-as-‘problem.’ They have to be seen as the solution and not just the problem for change to be possible. And we have to name our own need to move in society in new ways in age to make it happen.” — Betty Friedan, The Fountain of Age, 1993