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Life More Wonderful, Not Just Less Horrible

Last month, I wrote here that ageism is a public health issue, and I referred to a recently published book titled Breaking the Age Code, written by Becca Levy, PhD. The other day I got an email from a friend thanking me for recommending that book and confessing they’d changed their mind after reading it. Ok, maybe not changed their mind, but now they’re looking at things differently.

Before reading Breaking the Age Code, my friend believed that the healthy older people are the ones with positive beliefs about aging. It was their good health that allowed them to think well of aging. Since reading and talking about the book, my friend now appreciates the view that it’s the older people with positive beliefs about aging who are the healthy ones. 

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Perhaps it’s both/and.

My friend’s email reminded me of a story about when Ram Dass travelled to India to visit one of his teachers. As he exited the airplane, Ram Dass was met by his teacher’s assistant who said “Welcome. So good to see you. You are looking so old.”

Ram Dass’ travelling companion overheard the greeting and thought it strange, until they learned that in India older people are respected as honorable and contributing members of society, so the word old was actually a compliment. How different from our country.

I think we could reclaim the word old. Why don’t we start an Old Is Beautiful movement? Rather than being dismissive and self-deprecatory, the word old can be complimentary, even celebratory. 

The Swedish gerontologist Lars Tornstam developed his theory of Gerotranscendence in the 1980’s. Tornstam and his colleagues saw older people changing as they aged. These changes included decreased interest in superfluous social interaction and in accumulating material possessions, becoming less self-occupied and more selective in the choice of social and other activities. Also, solitude became more attractive.

Tornstam’s colleagues said these older people were depressed and recommended medication. Tornstam said “don’t drug them! Celebrate them, they’re just getting old.” Gerotranscendence holds that old is not bad in and of itself.

Have you ever forgotten something and then shook your head and thought “Oh well, too bad, I’m just getting old.”? Or maybe thought it was a senior moment? Ashton Applewhite says, “When I lost my car keys in high-school I didn’t call it a junior moment.”

So, there’s two types of the phrase “just getting old” - Tornstam’s celebration and our own self-dismissal. 

For most of us, our default attitude is ageist. We ‘tsk, tsk’, shake our heads and think ‘oh well, that’s just the way it is.’ We settle for a life just less horrible than it could be, a life that peaks in middle age - and if that’s what we settle for then that’s probably what we get.

Becca Levy writes that our beliefs about aging determine how long and how well we live. Let’s choose life more wonderful, not just less horrible. 


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