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When I began to write this article, a woman friend age 89, called. She told me, “I walked six miles today. The Fitbit said that I did my steps.”
“How did you feel?” I asked. “Tired,” she replied. “But then Bill wanted to have sex. So, I did that too.” I thought, “This is not my mother’s old age!”
The Diverse Experiences of Late Life
The lived reality of “old” is not what it used to be, but the perceived reality of “old” is not keeping pace. And our perceptions and beliefs about it after midlife will shape how we age.
Our fearful images of “old” — senile, dependent, disabled — stem from ageist stereotypes that mask another kind of aging that’s happening all around us: A Finnish woman, 95, set the record for oldest woman to complete a 500-foot bungee jump. The late George H.W. Bush jumped from a parachute at 90 to celebrate his new decade.
The glorious grandmas of Instagram are modeling underwear and swimwear in unfettered self-expression. Their chant: Age no longer dictates the way we live. If you have any doubt, check out these Instagram accounts: @silver_isthenewblonde @saramaijewels @1000wave and @seniorstylebible.
But, clearly, this vital lived reality is not everyone’s experience. For many, late life will be neither the dreaded, ageist stereotypes nor the rare exceptions. Instead, it will be highly diverse, holding both great promise and great challenge.
It can be a new stage of adult development, when we overcome past fears, develop fresh aptitudes and find new ways to contribute. But it also can feel lonely, frightening, uncertain and disorienting due to illness, loss and decline.
Reclaiming the Definition of Old
I propose that we reclaim the definition of “old” in all its cultural complexity and individual idiosyncrasy. After all, our quality of late life is lived individually, not as a group, and will depend on our health in brain/mind/body, social support, financial resources, education, beliefs about meaning and purpose and a capacity for self-reflection. If we think about two 65-year-olds we know, we may be astonished by differences in their appearances, abilities and attitudes.
So, to try to encapsulate it in a three-letter word — old — simply reduces it. Many experts are passionately against the term and call for it to be banished. Others call for it to be reclaimed and rehabilitated.
The movement for “positive” or “successful aging” emerged a decade ago to counter negative associations with “old,” which led to institutional ageism and individual despair. Proponents urged those over 50 to maintain productivity, physical and mental health and autonomy. This vision is increasingly possible for many of us, as we choose to delay retirement, create encore careers, build community projects and reinvent this stage of life.
But ideals quickly become “shoulds” and “shoulds” have a dark side:
- Productivity as an ideal sets up lack of productivity (leisure, contemplation, disability) as a failure and reinforces collective values of work, money and power that may better fit an earlier stage of life.
- Engagement as an ideal sets up lack of engagement as “selfish” or “being a burden.”
- Physical health as an ideal sets up loss of health as a personal failure.
- Autonomy and self-reliance as an ideal set up dependency and vulnerability as failure.
The Full Range of Life
Finally, these ideals reinforce an outer orientation over an inner turn, a shift from productivity to contemplation, money to meaning, independence to interdependence, achievement to life completion. We are at risk of losing the spiritual meaning of late life, of connecting with something larger than ourselves, if we merely extend the empire-building goals of midlife.
I’m a therapist and my client, Bob, 75, put it this way: “I don’t want to do anything. But I’m afraid to do nothing.”
When I pointed out that he was finally free of obligation, he said, “But I’m obligated to do something. Who am I when I do nothing?”
Without values for slowing down to savor life, contemplate his history, distill his life lessons and transmit his wisdom, Bob became lost and disoriented.
So, when we ask, “What is old?” we need to be mindful of where we put our attention: on growth or decline, gains or losses, holding on or letting go. I propose that we stretch to include the full range of life: both progress and decline, gain and loss, as we reinvent age for ourselves, so that neither goes into the cultural blind spot.
Perception vs. Reality
Although the lived reality of “old” is changing, the perceived reality lags behind. “Old” has different meanings in the eye — or age — of the beholder.
I asked a 19-year-old client, Sue, a college freshman, what aging means to her and when it begins.
“It means that the body breaks down, probably around 40,” she told me. When asked what she would be doing at 70, Sue said, “I hope I’m not too wrinkled or needy and can still do what I want to do.”
Like many young people, my client could not envision her own future in a positive way. According to a 2017 study by U.S .Trust, millennials view “old” as age 59, while boomers view it as 73.
A 2009 Pew study also revealed this gap between young people’s perceptions and older peoples’ reality: People under 30 believe that old age strikes before 60. Middle-agers say it begins at 70. Those over 65 put the threshold at 74.
The study also found that the older people get, the younger they feel. Among adults 65+, about 60 percent said they feel younger than their age. When those age 65 to 74 were asked if they feel old, only 21 percent said yes.
So, what is “old?” Is it an attitude or a cultural construct? Is there a phase transition from young to old, like the shift from water to ice? Is it indicated by markers — forgetfulness, retirement, becoming a grandmother or losing a driver’s license?
Yesterday, my stepdaughter said to me, “I want to be like you when I’m old.” I caught my breath. Was that a compliment or an ageist innuendo? The word is still loaded, even for me. But, yes, I’m going to talk to her about the full meaning of “old.”
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