Self Care

Build on the Strengths of Getting Older

The foundation can’t be myths about aging.

If you find yourself unexpectedly raising your grandchildren, you probably wonder where you will find the personal resources to fulfill such a big commitment. Do you have the strength for this new role?

Now may be a good time to refresh your thinking about aging. Misconceptions about the aging process can hold us back. We can better see the strengths we already have and inspire us to do more.

According to Frameworks, a group studying how Americans think, most people have a pretty grim vision of aging:

The American public tends toward fatalistic attitudes about the aging process, reasoning that it is inevitable, immutable, and likely to be pretty bad. “You can’t stop time,” people observe—and conflate the passage of time with a march toward Deterioration and Dependency, the public’s dominant models of what it means to “get old.” Moreover, a cultural model holding that Modern Life is Hard leads Americans to conclude that typical contemporary social structures make matters worse for older people, setting them up for isolation and financial struggle.

By contrast, here is a summary of the views of eleven leading aging experts:

Experts assume that aging is normal, lifelong, and cumulative—a ubiquitous, continuous process of human development that extends across the life span. They note that older age brings new opportunities for growth, contribution, and self expression. This observation also speaks to the expert view that aging is not synonymous with decline, disease, or disability. Experts emphasize that with the right contextual and social supports, older adults can remain healthy and maintain high levels of independence and functioning—even while experiencing some of the natural changes in vision, hearing, mobility, and muscle strength associated with aging.

Stereotypes are mental shortcuts. Sometimes they are useful. But when we rely on wrong or negative beliefs and attitudes to fill in our picture of aging there are going to be consequences. We, all of us, become blind to age discrimination. As a culture, we have a tendency—even as older adults—to identify against older age. We want to be forever young. But a Us vs. Them perspective positions older people as a separate social group, distinctly set off from “the rest of us.” We avoid the underlying truth: everyone of us is aging.

But the biggest downside of bad stereotyping about aging is that we become what we think we will become. What we think will happen, happens.

Key Takeaway: Stereotypes about aging are often negative–and often wrong! They hide our strengths from us–and from others.

Five Stereotypes of Aging

Time to ditch these misconceptions

1. Older people are all basically the same.

Just as young adults differ from one another, older adults are also not all the same. In each decade of adulthood, we observe substantial differences in cognitive functioning, personality, social relationships, lifestyle, beliefs, and satisfaction with life. This diversity reflects differences in rates of biogenetic and psychological aging and the sociocultural contexts and history of people’s lives. People face different kinds of life-altering experiences. These multiple factors interact and change over time. That is why it is a big mistake to sort people into categories such as young, middle-aged, young-old, and very old adults. It is more fruitful to seem commonalities shared between individuals in these age groups.

Takeaway:  You may have more in common with people in other age groups than you do with people in your group.

Tell her that!

Photo by Cassandra Hamer on Unsplash

2.  How we age is all about our personal choices. 

Environment and culture play large roles in healthy aging.

This is a message you’ve heard thousands of times. You should stop smoking, lose weight, exercise more, drink less.  There is no excuse for not achieving that ideal of old age:  being spry.

But if the story we tell ourselves is that aging is our fault we are buying into a myth.

Aging is a matter of societal concern—not just a personal matter.  Where we were born and to whom shapes our health profile. Unfortunately, “individualism” is arguably the deepest, most pervasive, and most well-established cultural model that Americans hold, shaping thinking about a vast array of social issues, not just aging. But a narrow focus on individual choice and willpower allow all of us to overlook the spectrum of factors and supports that shape peoples’ lives. The consequences of positive or negative aging outcomes are shared across society and not limited to the individuals or families experiencing them.

Takeaway: Aging is a matter for everyone.

3. Aging is all about decline and disability.

The U.S. is undergoing big changes in the ratio of older and younger people.

These changes will affect you.

In  terms of health and long lives, now may be the best time in history to get old. 

According to data from the US government:

  • A man reaching age 65 today can expect to live, on average, until age 84.3.
  • A woman turning age 65 today can expect to live, on average, until age 86.6.

And those are just averages. About one out of every four 65-year-olds today will live past age 90, and one out of 10 will live past age 95.

Takeaway: We are living longer and healthier, too.

Want to know your life expectancy?

Use this simple Life Expectancy Calculator to get a rough estimate of how long you (or your spouse) may live.

Ok, that might be a little scary.

4.  Old people are sad and cranky.

Nope. Experiences of positive emotions such as happiness and enjoyment are highest in young and older adulthood. Experiences of negative moods, particularly worry, stress and anger, tend to decrease with age. Experiences of sadness are lowest in early and later adulthood compared to midlife.  As the researchers studied 300,000 people in all age groups concluded (somewhat wonkishly):

[Our] results are generally consistent with Baltes’  theory of increased “wisdom” and emotional intelligence with age (at least through middle age), wherein decreased negative affective states could be a result of increasing wisdom, and with Carstensen et al.’s socioemotional selectivity theory, wherein older people have an increased ability to self-regulate their emotions and view their situations positively.

Takeaway: general moods tend to brighten as we age.

 

Fact: older people worry less than young adults.

5.  Our aging brains will fail us.

The truth is that areas of both losses and gains in cognition in older age. Cognitive ability and intelligence are often measured using standardized tests. There are at least two categories of intelligence that show different rates of change across the life span. Fluid intelligence refers to information processing abilities, such as logical reasoning, remembering lists, spatial ability, and reaction time. Crystallized intelligence encompasses abilities that draw upon experience and knowledge. Measures of crystallized intelligence include vocabulary tests, solving number problems, and understanding texts.

Many cognitive tests are exercises in mental gymnastics, in that as with physical gymnastics, they are designed to assess agility or flexibility but do not necessarily have direct counterparts in the everyday world.

However, in the real world when we face a challenge, “get ‘er done” is more than a matter of memory or quickness of mind.  Three major factors determine how well we can accomplish things:  the  “can do” (cognitive]ability), the “will do” (motivation), and “have done” (experience).  Brain researchers usually measure only the first factor. That’s why they are often surprised the older people do just fine in the workplace.

You know ’tis true.

Takeaway: The brain actually gets better and better at some real life problem-solving skills.*

* This trend levels off in the 60s and 70s and then declines in the very old.  And Myth #1 applies here, too!

 

 

There’s a reason older people do better on word tests.

Try this. Tell yourself your Life Story to uncover your Strengths.

 

This exercise might make it easier to see your strengths as you have exhibited them in the past. You may see opportunities for using them more frequently and/or more intensely.

When you are done, you may also see how the events in your life makes sense. And you may have inspiration about where you might go from here.

 

 

You Life is a Story

Finally, we haven’t even mentioned strength from Laughter, Humor and Silliness

Listen as Billy Collins, former poet laureate of the United States, reads his poem, Forgetfulness.

The poem starts at about 1.25. But the humor starts from the beginning.

In second poem, The Lanyard, substitute “grandmother” for “mother” and try not to weep through your laughter. There are not many 20-year-olds out there who could hear the depth of life and love spelled out in Collin’s brief tale.

Jessie F. Richardson Foundation