Aging: Fight or Embrace it, the Years Bring Gifts of Well-Being and Wisdom
“Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength.” – Betty Friedan
By the year 2050, a full 22% of the U.S. population will be aged 65 years or older. The youngest of those retirees will have been born in 1985. Also projected that year: over 3 million centenarians worldwide – people aged 100 years or more.
Old people everywhere! I for one, hope to be among them.
I also wish for a seismic shift in how aging is represented and regarded between now and then.
Juvenescence. It’s the all-too-fleeting period of youth.
Whether still young or pretending, Americans especially have been long obsessed with it.
In more collectivist cultures where community is prioritized, elders are valued and respected for their wisdom and experience. In sharp contrast is America’s individualist, every-man-woman-and-child-for-himself society, where youth and beauty beat age and experience with a stick.
Sadly, sometimes even literally.
The media has traditionally portrayed older adults as one-dimensional, homogenous and in mostly negative ways. Outdated stereotypes often show older adults as undesirable, unproductive and less capable - fueling faulty assumptions and poor treatment.
It seems that regardless of who you were in your prime, what you achieved or who you touched, when you age you descend to a generic old person and all bets are off. You become more likely to be targeted for scams or treated like a child, solely based on your number of years on the planet.
“To forget the elderly is to ignore the wisdom of the years.” – Donald Laird
Discrimination against the future you
All that ageist propaganda takes its toll and translates into how people regard and treat older adults, often in the workplace.
What makes ageism different from other kinds of discrimination like the racial or gender varieties, is that there’s 100% chance that someday the person doing the discriminating will be joining the targeted ranks. And sooner than they think.
This goes for the currently-young corporate execs systematically ridding the workplace of those dreaded 40-and-up ‘dino babies’. In about 5 minutes, cavalier ‘digital natives’ may find themselves sitting on the other side.
There’s definitely a digital divide between generations that companies need to navigate - but there’s also a monster empathetic one as well. Maybe at some point things like institutional knowledge, emotional intelligence and humanity will come back into style.
All that screen-time not only failed to teach critical soft skills, it also never revealed the truth: that they too, will age.
Gender aging bias
Not unlike pay-equity and the burden of childcare, when it comes to aging, the genders are unequally treated. Age discrimination and bias is decidedly worse for women.
You know the drill: men gain status as they age, women lose status.
Back to those executives with their plan to weed out older employees: their documented disdain for the ‘dated maternal workforce’ fits squarely into this aging double-standard.
It may also be indicative of some unresolved mommy issues, but that’s better left to the therapists.
“Self-hatred is for younger, prettier women.” – Zadie Smith
Ageism affects everyone
After a lifetime of contributing, the growing threat of being marginalized and deemed irrelevant can do a number on one’s self-image.
With all the messages pointing to aging as something to fear, ageist attitudes impact not only older people but all people who envision a devalued future for themselves. Especially young women.
A study by Berger (2017), confirmed that women harbor more fears about aging than do men. Where the primary concern about getting older for men was about declining physical health; for women, the major anxiety was declining physical appearance.
Berger points to the longstanding cultural significance placed on female youth and attractiveness as a significant contributing factor.
Fighting the unwinnable fight
We learn early that aging is something to fight. And while there’s not a prayer for aging prevention, a shocking amount of energy and money goes into covering it up.
For many fixated on maintaining the appearance of youth, the perfect product or service is out there. From creams, injections and peels; to dyes, supplements or surgery, the worldwide anti-aging market continues to grow and boom – to the tune of over $271 billion US estimated by 2024.
“World Death Rate Holding Steady at 100 Percent.” – The Onion headline
Denial doesn’t age well
In getting past any brainwashing, understanding and accepting reality is a good first step:
Remaining young is a fantasy and a delusion. I hate to be the one to break it to you but you’re getting older. The good news is that we’re all on the same journey: one with a youthful beginning, a powerful middle and a joyful end.
The longer we stay digging in our heels, pretending, living in denial, the less time we have to enjoy the benefits that the years have proven to bring.
Value to staying in our own lane
At 50, why are you trying to compete with 20? There’s a 100% chance you’re not anywhere close.
According to Harvard psychology professor, Ellen Langer, we often want the energy and physicality of our 20’s but also with the hard-earned results of the journey: the experience and growth we’ve lived and learned through since then.
To what extent we buy in to the fear-of-aging vortex has been shown to have an impact on how well we age. Time spent running from the inevitable is better spent investing in those things that truly impact our health, happiness and well-being as the years go by.
If you like to win, try competing where you have an edge: in education, experience, net worth or peace of mind. Or better yet, stop competing at all.
The aging paradox
It’s not all bad news.
Known as the paradox of aging, studies show that despite the overdone downsides to getting older, there are definite emotional rewards for all those accumulated years.
Research shows that our mental health, emotional well-being, the ability to handle stress and our mood continues to improve, year after year.
A study by the UC San Diego Center for Healthy Aging (2016) found that the older a person was, the less stressed, less depressed and just plain happier and content.
As we age, life improves overall, and negative emotions lessen and increasingly lose their power.
The researchers surmised that wisdom acquired over years plays a role in the reason mental health improves as we age. Described as a personality trait made up of a collection of qualities, wisdom includes: compassion and empathy; self-awareness and decisiveness; openness, emotional maturity and benevolence.
In contrast, the study found the most depressed and stressed were people in their 20’s.
For all the youth obsession, your 20’s may look great in a selfie but it’s also the worst period as far as psychological well-being goes. This time sees the demands of launching off into life: getting an education, starting a career or figuring out finances.
In older age, many of those stressors are gone.
A separate study from Florida State University (2016) compared the emotional well-being of women in their 20’s with women in their 50’s.
They found that the younger women worried more about their current and future appearance. The fear of getting older added to anxiety levels and reduced their happiness. The older group of women felt younger than their actual age, which served to promote their psychological health.
“As soon as you feel too old to do a thing, do it.” – Margaret Deland
Investing in healthy aging
Where we do have some say is in how we will age.
The things that make for the best aging experience aren’t going to just appear. Investing in our physical and mental health will make life better as the years go by.
As we get older, the importance of appearance gives way to function. Staying active and mobile has shown to help older people feel younger than their age. The opposite is also true: younger people with health conditions feel older than their age.
Friend variety pack
Despite a proliferation in anti-aging technology, what science says actually works to keep us feeling youthful is collecting both older and younger friends.
Research has found that people whose friends span generations feel younger than those with a friend group all their own age. And older adults with a wide variety of relationships had greater emotional well-being and tended to be more physically active than those who did not.
Younger people help expose us to new things and encourage a youthful energy that’s contagious.
Older friends can serve as models for growing older gracefully, especially those without hang-ups about aging, and who are happy & grateful to be alive.
Having older friends show us the reality of aging; and how it’s not all the same. You see what 70 or 80 or 90 looks like on different people. You can see what works and what doesn’t.
Having friends who are older help can inspire our own self-care adjustments, allowing the benefits to take advantage of a 20- or 30-year runway.
“Leadership is not about the next election, it’s about the next generation.” – Simon Sinek
Embrace your inner elder
As people age, they often seek meaning and purpose as time becomes more precious.
According to the director of the Stanford Center for Longevity, Dr. Laura Carstensen, goals change as we get older and come to accept our own mortality. Priorities shift. Ambition and growth are replaced with enjoying relationships, giving back and designing a fulfilling life.
For some this means focusing efforts on making a difference and leaving a legacy; on sharing hard-earned lessons and inspiring hope in younger generations.
In 1950, German psychoanalyst Eric Erikson coined the term generativity: “a concern for establishing and guiding the next generation.”
It turns out that older adults that take the time to invest and develop younger generations have shown to be happy at three times the rate as those who do not. The benefits continued: multiple studies also confirmed cognitive, emotional and physical health improvements associated with intergenerational volunteering.
Emotional and cognitive skills can continue to improve into later life. Seeking purpose helps us feel youthful and provides the mental stimulation that helps protect against depression, dementia and other brain conditions.
Studies continually show that generativity and Intergenerational relationships are associated with greater happiness, better health and even longer life.
“If you’re not getting older, you’re dead.” – Tom Petty
Growing older every day, every year, actually means that we’re winning, not losing. And if we get really old, we’re the luckiest, the longest.
As the daily drumbeat of heartbreaking headlines can attest, many, many people do not get the chance to see older age. For those who do, they have important lessons to share.
One of my closest friends is 92. She shows me that aging is graceful and grateful, full of memories and stories and laughter - albeit a bit harder to get around.
“Wrinkles will only go where the smiles have been.” – Jimmy Buffet