Can We Change The Future Of Aging?

This article was initially published for on Oct. 20, 2015

CrowdThe other day, on a beautiful morning, I was walking along a nearby shore and decided to engage a couple taking a short rest from their morning walk. “Hi”, I said. “I wonder if I can get you to take an unusual picture of me.” Of course, they agreed, and we began our chat. I said, “I’m going to do a handstand on that platform, and I’d like a picture of it from a very low angle.” They looked at each other, confused by what I had said. While setting up the picture, I learned that she was 48 years old, and he was 51. I jumped up on the platform and executed a reliable handstand while they tried to capture it with my phone camera, looking amazed as they did so.

After the pictures were taken, the man indicated he may have been able to do such a thing 40 years ago, but there is no chance he could do that these days. That’s when I told him that I close to 20 years older than he was. They shook their heads in amazement, saying all of the things I’ve come to expect. “You can’t be that old”, “That’s incredible”, “How do you keep yourself this way”, and so on.

What I’ve come to understand is that these reactions and comments are not really about me at all (and I’m good with that). They are more about the internal ideas of aging that people have inside of them. In the case of this couple, their image of what a person my age (65 at the time)  is like had just been violated. This was the true source of their incredulity.

Most of us have rather negative opinions about getting older. And, as I’ve discussed in a previous article, these opinions and ideas rob value from our society, our families, and us personally. In this article, I would like to further explore how we compromise ourselves through such thinking, give clues as to how to counterbalance this, and suggest how Growth-Works might help this.

How Do You Feel About Getting Older?
After exploring the research, I now firmly believe that how we feel about getting older and what we think it will be like for us are very strong determinants of what our personal aging will actually be like. (See references.) Of course, there are many other factors that play into our aging outcomes. But, in study after study, our opinions about aging over our lifetime have been shown to be a highly correlating factor affecting the quality of our aging process. Across the board, the explorations point to the same conclusion: A person’s attitude towards old age affects how they fare once they reach it. In a rather well-known study (see references), it was reported that seniors who harbored negative views about old age faced life spans that were, on average, seven and a half years shorter than those of those who felt more positively. But that is just the tip of the iceberg.

These feelings, beliefs, and opinions also fuel false notions that aging makes us sick, obsolete, or useless. We can start to internalize these views with disastrous consequences for both our mental and physical health. It is important to make the distinction that it is not aging, or getting older that is the problem. It is our feelings about it, along with other social factors, that compromise us and our futures.

Aging is a proper and natural process for animals and humans alike. Reaching our elder years is no more of a problem than the other stages of life. Each of these periods is just another phase that presents its unique, but normal, challenges and advantages. We tend to create the problems simply in how we look at them. For example, if you are attached to or identify too much with, being young, then getting older will most certainly trigger some loss of identity. Whether that is a problem or not depends entirely on you and your thinking.

The Source of Our Beliefs on Aging
Generally speaking, the path to higher quality aging begins by feeling better about our natural aging process. But it is hard to do anything about how we feel about aging unless we can better understand where these negative internal feelings and beliefs come from.

It turns out that we acquire these beliefs in more or less the same manner we acquire other beliefs – through cultural osmosis. Our socialization includes a process of gradually, and unconsciously assimilating ideas, knowledge, and other elements of thinking. This is the avenue through which we learn how we should feel about having a job, being married, being a parent, and many other aspects of living.

Of course, we all take to this cultural indoctrination differently. Some of us accept more easily, while others reject more easily. So we are not all going to come out of this socialization process thinking exactly the same. But either way, our culture provides the largest factor for where our thoughts on aging come from.

In the American culture, it’s not hard to see that we are “taught” to fear aging. We are quietly taught that growing older is a painful thing.  This has become our reality because we make it so, not because it is inherently true.

Consider some of the “normal” phrases and messages that are so prevalent around us when it comes to age. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard things like “At my age, it’s too late to <insert goal or objective>”, “Falling in love at my age seems ridiculous”, “I’m too old to return to college”, and so on. We have been taught to use our age as a reason (excuse) for no longer doing things. We’ve been taught that aging itself is what brings about a loss of good health. All of this helps us to fear the aging process.

The Circle of Life – Take Two

Each phase of life has its unique advantages and disadvantages. Infancy, childhood, adolescence, and the 3 stages of adulthood – early, middle, and mature – are all required to support the full spectrum of humanity. None of these periods are superfluous to our existence as a species. Even the dying offer their contributions to us by teaching us the value of living, how not to take our lives for granted, and the reasons for living each moment. Each stage of life has its own unique “gift” to contribute to the world.

Along with the societal benefits, aging tends to spiritualize us as individuals. In exploring the research references, we can see a number of ways in which we improve as we age.

  • While short-term memory may be compromised, pattern recognition is enhanced in the older brain. The designs of life become more apparent to us.
  • Older people have a greater capacity for empathy, a trait that is learned and refined as we age. How many adolescents do you know with the gift of empathy?
  • Generally speaking, older people do a better job of maintaining emotional stability. Managing emotions is a skill that takes most of us decades to master. Negative emotions – sadness, anger, fear – become less pronounced than in our drama-filled youth.
  • Older people know themselves better than they did in their previous years. The more we live with ourselves, the more we come to know the person who lives in our own skin. This gives us a tremendous advantage in living our lives. The ancient Greek maxim to “Know thyself” has proven to be one of the most powerful throughout the ages.

These are all things that help us live our lives better. They are desirable traits. So why do we fear the aging process that moves us closer to them?

inaccurate Assumptions
This fear of aging is mostly about the loss of physical strength & attractiveness, mental acuity, and the ability to be a productive member of society. We worry about becoming doddering old fools, a burden to our children, and incapable of taking care of ourselves. Our thoughts fester on the possibilities of losing independence or living in pain.

But these seriously negative stereotypes are typically incorrect or, at least, inaccurate, according to the research. They keep us from living full lives. As we “imagine” the physical and mental hardships that older people must be enduring, we distance ourselves unconsciously from their true realities, which are, more often than not, very different.

This became apparent to me when I met with a very devastating accident that shattered and pulverized my right foot. Doctors suggested amputation, but my ex-wife insisted on reconstruction. (I was unconscious and couldn’t speak for myself.) Although occurring over 16 years ago, I still must take special care of the foot. I cannot hike or engage in selected sports as I once did. And I feel pain in that foot regularly. I was 54 when that accident happened. The foot and its struggles are part of my daily life now. And my life proceeds with all the vigor I can muster. I remain proud of my athletics and shifted my sports to those that are light on the foot. Yet, when I tell the story of the accident and the foot to others, they imagine scenarios that have them saying “Poor Lee”, “I’m sorry for your loss of function”, “Wow, how do you do all you do with that foot”. They imagine that living with this compromised foot is a lot worse than it really is for me. They do not know that they too would have accommodated this “special” foot more gracefully than they think they would have.

Which Comes First – Getting Old or Aging?

And so it is with our image of older people. We can see their struggles and hardships. But we don’t yet understand the grace that successful elders have developed in minimizing the imperfections of their lives. As we look at them, we have yet to understand that their happiness and worth are not necessarily hampered by compromised feet, aching joints, wrinkles, daily pain, and other natural signs of a body that has experienced the years.

But how do older people actually feel about themselves?  A 2009 Pew Research survey with a fairly large sample resulted in over 60% of people over 65 saying they feel younger than their age. Even the majority of those over 75 say they typically feel younger than their years would indicate. This does not fit the picture that the rest of us have of older people. We believe they feel worse than they say they do. There are so many people 80 and beyond that are quite happy with a purpose that drives them each day.

However, we know that people will feel old when there are significant decreases in their health or functional capabilities (e.g. driving, climbing stairs, daily upkeep tasks, etc.). But this loss of capability doesn’t just come from old age. We have proven in recent years that our environment, lifestyles, and habits over time are more significant in producing premature aging.

Generally speaking, it is time, not age that is the dominant factor in our functional decreases. The more time we are exposed to the harmful elements of our modern-day pollutants, nutrition, and the stressful consequences of lifestyle choices, the shorter the years we will be able to enjoy our natural functional capabilities. I’m not suggesting age is not a factor. But research is telling us that it is not the dominant factor we thought it was.

Where is a Role Model When You Need One?
Although there will always be wide individual variations in both thinking and aging outcomes, cultural change also means a change in our cultural aging characteristics. (Please note that I am not talking about lifespan, but rather our age-related health patterns as a function of the negative stereotypes embedded in our culture.) But how do we adjust our culture for better aging characteristics?

Let’s break up that question into a few sub-questions. As a culture, how do we:

  • Come to realize that aging is a natural physical process, but getting old is a mental and spiritual one that is under our direct influence?
  • Start recognizing that successful aging produces a culture that has greater wisdom, tolerance, and deeper insights into the patterns of life?
  • Promote the form of personal beauty that only time and maturity can give us?
  • Begin to see that aging is a culturally influenced process as well as a biological one?
  • Stop worrying about getting old and start to enjoy and take advantage of the process?

The future of aging lies in answering questions like these. But I believe that it is that last question that is the most important one because it re-focuses our attention. And, as we all know, energy flows where attention goes. Once we get positively involved in our final levels of development, we will be too immersed in our purpose for living to demean our aging process with negative stereotypes. And the more of us that find this path, the weaker the old stereotypes of aging become.

There are so many of us who are already doing that. But the media is only starting to show this side of our aging. The future of aging is changing. Boomers are challenging this status quo thinking. There are now many “Silver Inspirations” that we can use as better models for successful, positive aging. Are you one of them? would you like to be?