Drawing upon her decades of experience working with—and learning from—older adults, SCF Advisory Council member Susan Hoskins, LCSW, who is executive director of the Princeton (NJ) Senior Resource Center, shares her views on aging. Embrace your inner elder, she advises. This article originally appeared in the July 15, 2010, issue of U.S.1 and is reprinted with the permission of the author, who holds its rights.
Recently someone asked me if I would participate in a talk called “Don’t Let an Old Person Move into Your Body.” I thought about it for several days, and then I declined.
It certainly was very nice to be asked. However, I just couldn’t get past the feeling that there was an implied insult to older adults that I didn’t want to participate in. What if I said, “Don’t let a girl move into your body?” Or a college professor? Or a Latina? All of these would be considered offensive, so why is it OK to say this about old?
Our culture is extremely anti-aging. Whole industries thrive on removing wrinkles and folds. Elderhostel changed its name to Exploritas to get “elder” out of the image. Some people won’t come to senior center programs because that venue conjures images of old people sitting around waiting for lunch. Boomers are especially prone to age-denial. Most have no plans to retire at all and 25 million have saved less than $1,000. They do everything they can to avoid anything related to aging.
I understand that the central theme of this motivational speaker’s presentation is that much depends on our attitude about aging. I agree that we can choose not to “think old,” to keep active and engaged, to find purpose and passion throughout our lives. This is one of the things I love about working with older people who are actively learning, doing and giving to their families and their communities. What wonderful role models for us all!
How do we change our culture to one that honors and reveres old age?
But I do not agree that “getting old is a myth.” The reality is that physically we are aging. I think those who are most successful at aging find ways to adapt to this reality. You take gentle yoga and senior aerobics rather than a high-paced class at a fitness center. You volunteer 10 hours a week instead of working 50 hours. And yes, some of you still are running marathons.
I have met many people who feel that you deserve some respect for your age and wisdom. My question is: how do we change our culture to one that honors and reveres old age? In New Age lingo, how can we “embrace and nurture our inner elder?”
Interestingly, the New York Times ran two articles recently that relate to this issue. In “Old Age From Youth’s Narrow Prism” (March 1, 2010), writer Marc Agronin, MD, points out that we often view old age through the eyes of youth, and that by so doing, we imagine only pain and loss, failing to see the joys of new pursuits and the wisdom and meaning that age can bring. In “Happiness May Come With Age” (May 31, 2010), Nicholas Bakalar reports that a 2008 Gallup poll found that people get happier as they get older.
I want to be in the forefront of a movement that honors, respects, reveres and even envies old people. In the same way that 40 years ago we changed the perception that women could not do many jobs traditionally held by men, we must confront those who think that age is all about loss and diminishment. We must confront people who use ageist language and concepts. We must be mindful of the ways that we unwittingly buy into these perceptions and perpetuate them. We must get involved in intergenerational groups so that youth get to know who you really are, and can benefit from your wisdom and experience. Embrace your inner elder with pride!