Birthdays may not be worth celebrating after a certain age. . .
but moments are never to be missed or passed up
A Bucket of Birthday candles won’t much last past a good couple of flickers but we live for the
not the fleeting flickers. . .
Do We Need a New Roadmap for Getting Older?
Old age can last half a century, says physician Louise Aronson, so it needs a better definition—and more praise.
Recently journalist, JENARA NUREMBERG asked some fairly pertinent questions that beg for even more compelling answers
What do you think of when you think of “old age?” Maybe you think of it as your time of decline—something to be avoided at all costs. Many of us imagine the few short years just before our death, rather than the long stretch of time often available to explore new interests and relationships and activities.
Author and physician Louise Aronson wants to change that. In her new book, Elderhood, she argues that old age or “elderhood” is a much richer, more nuanced experience than most people understand, and that treating it like an illness or pathology is the wrong approach. She believes people need to embrace elderhood as another normal phase of life—just like childhood and adulthood—with its own challenges and rewards. By reclaiming the narrative around older age, she hopes to not only support elders, but to impact family life, health, research, policy, and society as a whole.
Louise Aronson: I define elderhood as one of the three main phases of life—what comes after childhood and adulthood. It captures the years that begin between ages 60-70 and continue until a person’s death. And if a person lives until the age of 100, then that means elderhood lasts almost half a century.
Human civilizations from the ancient Greeks and Romans to the early Chinese and Egyptians have been defining old age beginning between 60-70. Because people don’t like hearing that it starts so young, they’ve pushed that to the extreme, whereby people think of “old” as a debilitating phase that only lasts the very few short years right before death.
Louise goes on to explain: Part of why I wanted to introduce the term elderhood to a wider audience—I did not make it up—was so that we would begin thinking about elderhood the way we think about childhood and adulthood. “Old age” absent the term elderhood is the subject of a lot of prejudice and bias, so we end up with phrases like “silver tsunami” and “no one wants to be old” or “aging is life’s great disaster.”
By reframing it as this long phase of life with multiple sub-phases—just like childhood and adulthood—we take a broader approach and we can look at it as a society and community, and not just as individuals. So right now having “old” be devalued, with everyone being meant to face it on their own, we hear questions like “can we cure aging?” Why are we treating something that is normal and natural and that has always existed as pathology?
Now, are there things that come with aging that we would feel much better without? Sure. But we don’t tend to pathologize other entire phases of life. Take adolescence. We recognize that there are behaviors that adolescents are more likely to do that are not good for them or society, but we don’t necessarily say we should get rid of adolescents the way that people often talk about older people. “Let’s go house them somewhere separately, let’s not think about them, let’s build a world for children and adults and then blame older people when that world doesn’t match with their needs or interests.”
Miss Aronson goes on to remind us: There’s more and more out there about age, and there’s so much good stuff; but I felt like the most well-intentioned material was still insulting old age and old people by saying, “Old is only how you feel, 70 is the new 50, 100 is the new 70.” All these things are saying that being old is never in and of itself a good thing or a desirable thing and by extension people who are old are never good people or desirable people. I didn’t like that.
I also didn’t see anything that pulled together all the different ways in which we’re addressing aging—culturally, medically, socially, historically. We tend to think we’re doing all these novel, innovative things with aging, and although some of the specifics differ, human thoughts and approaches about old age are pretty much the same as what we have in evidence from 2,000 to 5,000 years ago. The attempt to understand and adapt to aging is a very human task and such history shows how important these questions are and how existential they are.
I really like how Louise explains: In medicine, we tend to say that such and such population—children, women, people of color, old people—is somehow different from “the norm,” defining the “norm” as middle-aged white guys, because that’s who was doing medicine. Medical research has begun to acknowledge that children aren’t just variations of adults, and women aren’t just variations of men, and people of color aren’t just variations of white people. We need to recognize that being old is as different from being an adult as an adult is from being a child. We change throughout our lives.
For example, with vaccine schedules, we have different schedules for adults and children because of different biology and behaviors. Well, biology and behaviors also change from age 75 onward. Even in diseases that primarily affect older people, the research at best will be on the younger range of older people. So we say that older people are different, and yet we apply results from people different than them to them. Then we blame bad outcomes on old age rather than on what it was—a scientific setup that was destined to fail or hurt people because it didn’t study the target population adequately.
When asked about the HAPPINESS FACTOR as we grow older Miss Aronson reflects: That’s such a good question. Most people are shocked to learn that happiness and life satisfaction go way up just before 60 and continuing into the 80s. So people who are older are much happier than adults in midlife, on average. On average people get happier, and part of that has to do with a real comfort with self and confidence in one’s priorities so that people are more focused on spending time in ways they value and on spending time with people that they value. So their life becomes positive and self-reinforcing.
Another thing that was just reported this year is that older people generally rate their health pretty good. They look around at other people and generally conclude that, yes, their health is better than they thought it would be. So some of this is about having perspective, which takes decades, and also a comfort with who you are and where you are. And when you think about things like meditation and mindfulness and retreats and such, these are the things that elders are best at naturally. So it’s really interesting that we have this untapped population group that are doing the exact things that so many adults are hungry for and yet adults still disparage the very group that is living the things they wish for themselves.
I just turned 64 yesterday and I remember when that seemed older than a dinosaur bone with stardust in its DNA
. . .and now it just feels like 34 with a lot more
with each step I take
or when I get out of a chair after sitting a little while
or when I try walking down a staircase
or when I make a trip to the bathroom for the
third time before my 5:30 a.m. wake up time
B U T
Never has my
G L O W
With a few more
W I C K S
and be lit
with paths not yet traveled,
E N L I G H T E N D