Lessons from the Circle of Life
There was something very disturbing happening within me as I watched my father grow older and older. Twenty two years ago, I didn’t know myself then as well as I do now. So, at the time, it was hard to even recognize that something was disturbing me. But it all seems very clear now.
He had retired 11 years before his death, but his health had already started declining. I have many recollections from those 11 years. Here are a few:
- I recall this once proud man declaring himself “no longer young” at the tender age of 60 in a manner indicating that looking behind him was more comfortable than looking ahead of him.
- I recall him eyeing my 33 year old physique and saying out loud to himself “I used to be like that, but no longer.”
- I recall how he started to withdraw more and more as the years passed. My sense was that he became a greater annoyance to those who kept his company.
- I recall the heavy feeling in me watching him give up more of himself as time marched. He felt that he had less to give.
But more disturbing was what I was seeing inside of me. Looking back, I wasn’t there to help him, as much as I was to agree with his assessments on his age. I saw me give up on him just as he was giving up on himself. As his doubts about his health increased, so did mine. As he felt his own growing uselessness, I felt it with him. He died in 1994 at the relatively young age of 73.
That same disturbance crept over me again as I watched my mother get older. I don’t ever remember a moment where my mother felt young to me. I used to joke that she was born at 40 years old. (40 was old then.) But, she did something very strange when she was 75. She fell in love.
It was a marvelous wonder to see my mom behave like a secretive teenager. And we all enjoyed watching her during this infatuation. She was needed again. She was able to contribute to another person’s life.
But her “elderly” ways returned after the euphoria of that love matured into everyday existence. She seemed to lose more of herself as each of her lifelong friends passed away. I recall watching her crumble from a broken heart as she watched my sister’s coffin be lowered into the ground. (No parent should have to endure that.)
I saw more and more fear inside of her as the years passed. I saw myself give up on her as she gave up on herself. Once again, I wasn’t there to help her as much as I was there to agree with her negative assessments.
Embedded within these stories are, or course, classic examples of ageism at work. I am writing this commentary not just to prove to myself that I understand my disturbance better than I did back then. More importantly (at least for me), I’d like to discourage us all from walking into unnecessarily diminished futures, and encourage instead, a preparation for our beautiful sunsets.
The Enemy Inside
The definition for ageism says something like “prejudice, stereotyping or discriminating against individuals or groups on the basis of their age.” This suggests that the source of ageism shares similar characteristics with the source of the other “isms” such as racism, sexism, class-ism, and hetero-sexism. To understand these “isms”, I think we need to understand the process of stereotyping.
A stereotype is basically a learned set of associations that link a set of characteristics to a group. We all unconsciously learn cultural stereotypes through socialization. But some of us believe these stereotypes are true and don’t recognize that individual characteristics within any “group” vary greatly and change over time. Age, along with race and gender, is a primary social category, meaning that age-based social categorizations are automatic, or made too quickly to be thoughtful and deliberate. Most stereotypes of the elderly operate beneath the conscious thoughts of those that hold them. So ageism has become ingrained in our cultures as it is passed on to children from parents who hold ageist stereotypes.
The Cost of Ageism
Ageism, like high-blood pressure, is mostly a silent destroyer. It acts like an inside embezzler, stealing valuable assets that we didn’t know we had. Most of us can spot the more obvious indications of ageism in our society:
- workplace age discrimination
- predatory telemarketing
- Medicare frauds and abuses using the elderly as pawns of profit
- Demeaning portrayals of elders in the media
But these represent the outer manifestations of ageism, not the origins of it. They do not show the real cost and value lost. Before ageism can exist on the outside of us, it must exist on the inside of us. So let’s look inside a bit to see what we can see.
As mentioned above, in daily social interactions, ageism typically occurs without much notice or concern. For example, without knowing circumstances, we find ourselves pitying elders rather than honoring them. Our stereotypes have us assuming a struggle in their lives, either physical or emotional, that may or may not exist. However so many seniors and elders are closer to true happiness than can be seen from their outside public impressions[i]. So the stories we imagine as we watch their sometimes strained walk, and compromised senses more reflect our own opinions rather than the realities of their lives.
These stories don’t just influence how we see seniors and elders around us. They directly affect how we manage our own lives. We find ourselves expecting and accepting conditions typically attributed to aging, but really come from other sources. We accept lifestyles and habits that promote the very conditions we fear as we age. The self-fulfilling aspects of ageism help bring about the chronic diseases and ailments that we believe are a part of life as we age. We are now slowly realizing that it is our choices that may be at the heart of some of these undesirable conditions. Societal choices and cultural memes strongly influence (but don’t dictate) our individual choices. So the need for us to exercise self-directed critical thinking has never been greater.
With positive aging models around us, we can see greater options, expanded horizons, and more opportunities for value, service, and contribution as we age. It has been proven that a person’s attitude toward old age significantly affects how they fare once they reach it. In a now famous study, when seniors were led to subconsciously absorb positive stereotypes about old age, their physical health improved along with their self-esteem and longevity[ii].
Another invisible cost of ageism can be seen in our relationships as it fosters or, at least encourages, distrust between the age groups. This reduces collaboration and innovation between vital population segments. It slows down the transfer of information between people of different ages. We can see this in families, companies and government. For example, each age group in our population has distinct political identities, which sometimes don’t align well with other age groups[iii] [iv].
The Evolutionary Reboot of Attitudes
So how do we start to recover the noiseless, but substantial losses coming from our unconscious ageism? Despite anti-discrimination laws, ageism, like racism, cannot be legislated out of existence. We must face this burglar first within us, then within the larger culture around us. The change has to start in our personal development and in our hearts. I believe it has to start at the individual level
We will need to embrace certain realizations in our collective consciousness, both as a society and as individuals. Successfully integrating these insights improves the lives of everyone, has benefits for everyone, and gives us all significantly more future during our lives. Consider what our societies would look like if we all saw the following as true:
- Aging is not a disease. It is a natural stage of life which has particular needs, as do the other stages of life, such as childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and our working years.
- Greater life experiences (aka: aging) brings us closer toward our tolerance, wisdom and patience. Our aging gives us clearer views of ourselves and what true happiness is. It spiritualizes us naturally. And our personal environments and societies benefit from this important maturation.
- The diversity amongst older people is much greater than that of younger groups. This is so apparent between me and my identical twin. (Yes, I am an identical twin.) The older we get, the more differences there are between us. And these differences will become even more apparent as we continue to age.
- Realize that every period and age in our lives hold significant challenges, and old age isn’t any different, even if the trials seem unique to this age group. A lot of seniors (the majority?) have great capacity to enjoy and contribute to life. And despite the signs of aging that others may see, their desire to do so remains undiminished.
Conquering Ourselves First
The attitude shifts mentioned above won’t happen unless we look at ourselves first. Most of us are looking to get old, although we don’t express it that way. Nobody makes it out of this life alive. But leaving this life as a wise and respected elder is like a beautiful sunset ending a well-lived day. The following tips help to create this image first in our own heads, and then in our personal environments. You will benefit from these regardless of your age. But, I believe the older you are, the more advantages there are in the following practices:
- Don’t fall for the “Inner Kill”. I believe this term was coined by Richard Leider[v], and refers to our tendency to get caught up in our own trials and tribulations to the exclusion of all else. As we grapple with health issues, decreasing energy, and loss of loved ones, it’s easy to get caught up in negative and debilitating thought cycles that kill us before we actually pass on. The antidote, Mr. Leider argues, is serving others, reaching out, and finding ways to contribute to a larger good. This sounds good to me.
- Don’t be typical. Ageism feeds off of the stereotypical behaviors of seniors and elders. So why be typical? Seniors and elders have earned the right to be different than what we expect them to be. Embrace that difference. Use your playful imagination each and every day to defy categorization. For example, to help compensate for a compromised foot, I will sometimes get around (quite effectively) using my Razor push scooter. It gives me exercise, makes me mobile, and gets me the strangest looks from both “grown-ups” and children alike.
- Don’t confine your friendships to your own age group. There is something to be gained and enjoyed from people of all ages. How many friends do you have that are more than 15 or 20 years older or younger from you? My own experiences at my gym are so much richer because of the interesting friendships I’ve fostered with macho boys between 17 and 25 years old. I am 64. We inspire each other to go for higher stakes.
- As much as you can, walk, act and speak like a vibrant, healthy person. This is not always possible, but moving closer to that ideal is always available. Smile and show your white teeth. Stand straight as your body permits. Posture is important for appearance. And understand that living is about MOTION. Move as much as your body will allow you to. The more you do so, the more you will be able to do so. If you can workout regularly, you will see untold benefits to all aspects of your life. But you knew I would say that.
- Try to genuinely enjoy people. The stresses of modern living can sometimes make this hard if we are not already inclined in this direction. But you can easily see the healthier lives of those who enjoy people as opposed to those that keep themselves apart.
These realizations and personal practices will most certainly start to eat away at the specter of ageism by changing the source of it – ourselves and our personal cultures.
Don’t Worry, Be Happy
The baby boomer generation is changing the face of aging and with it the stereotypes that feed ageism. In a recent survey asking people what age is considered old[vi] , most respondents answered that old age doesn’t start until 80. This is a far different mindset than that which was used to set the retirement age at 65. We have more productive and empowering models of aging around us these days. Our seniors and elders are healthier and more active. The frail and disabled among us may still capture the eyes (and pity) of the younger segments. But even these people have earned a respect that comes from their natural wisdom. Even while our physical aspects show the effects of time, true happiness and contentment can still spread from us to others. Listening to 85 year old people talk about the lessons of their life can be truly inspiring, and fun.
[i] http://www.livescience.com/34825-older-adults-happiness-negative-emotions.html, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/10/scientific-proof-that-the_n_5110179.htm, http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=4688191