Are you getting older and getting tired of it?
Do you look back fondly on the days when you didn’t know the name of a urologist? Or, when you considered an afternoon nap a waste of time? How about when bedtime was right after Johnny Carson’s monologue? And all the gradual issues of forgetfulness and hearing loss — enough already!
Join the biggest biological club in the country. More than 54 million Americans are 65 or older as of 2021. That’s 16.5 percent of the population. By 2050, that total will be over 85 million (20 percent).
Time to get blue over the inevitable march to the eternal? Not if you want to live enjoyably to a ripe old age. There are many keys to serenity for senior citizens, but they start with positive perceptions and expectations about aging, as well as a peaceful acceptance of the process.
In Getting Good at Getting Older, Richard Siegel and Rabbi Laura Geller make the case that, because there’s no reversing progressive physiological change, we may as well develop the skill set necessary to cope with it.
“Let’s approach it as we approached our younger years, with energy, with ambition, with intentionality, and with chutzpah,” Siegel and Geller wrote.
The authors challenged the perception that aging is all about decline. Rather, they asserted it’s a time of possibility and opportunity.
“We may not even realize when we buy into ageism,” they declared. “We say 60 is the new 40. Seventy is the new 50. But that’s just a way of pretending that we aren’t really growing older…we accept ageist stereotypes: that wrinkles are ugly; that it is sad to be old; that old people are incompetent. And, most of all, we view older people as ‘other’ not us — not even ‘future’ us. Guess what? Seventy is not the new 50. Seventy is simply a new 70.”
Journalist and blogger Dena Kouremetis put it this way: “Aging well takes vigilance, commitment, and a spirit that looks for constant renewal…none of us will get out of this alive, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make the best of this incredible life we have been given.”
Such a positive, life-affirmative approach actually can add years to your life. Researchers Becca Levy, PhD, and Martin Slade, MPH, concluded “Older individuals with more positive self-perceptions of aging lived 7.5 years longer than those with less positive self-perceptions of aging.”
Results of the Levy/Slade work indicated “self-perceptions of aging had a greater impact on survival than did gender, socioeconomic status, loneliness, and functional health.”
In a very real sense, our expectations become self-fulfilling — negative attitudes appear to diminish life expectancy while positive ones prolong life.
In their book, The Longevity Plan, Dr. John Day and Jane Day (with Matthew LaPlante) noted that the Levy/Slade research suggested pessimism “can actually deteriorate our DNA…it leaves us vulnerable to aging-related diseases.”
Longevity Plan stated “the number of candles on our birthday cakes doesn’t have to correlate with the way we feel and act. Sure, we’re all getting older according to the calendar, but research has shown we can slow and even stop…deterioration.”
A cherished appreciation of the aging process is one of the central themes of Longevity Plan. The book was researched in Bapan, a village in southwest China, where people live remarkably long lives — lives that grow richer with age, especially very old age.
The centenarians in Bapan told the Days they “were living the best years of their lives. Those in the village who were not yet one hundred longed to get there.”
How many people in our contemporary culture are longing to experience life at one hundred? Longevity Plan delved into great detail about the way these Chinese reached such a level of contentment, including lifestyle, diet, a strong feeling of community, and a sense of purpose. Positive expectations were a cornerstone of their longevity– they were not pessimistic about their senior years.
The works of Levy/Slade, the Days, and others have deeply explored the relationship between expectations and outcomes. Many have concluded that when people anticipated certain results, they often behaved in ways that made those results more likely to occur. Additionally, it has been established people can learn new skills which help them experience more positive emotions when facing perceived adversity.
These skills don’t require denial, or burying your head in the sand—they demand a critical examination of our attitudes, a decision to dump the conventional negative adages about aging. We can learn to make the most of what we have, no matter how old we are.
“Growing older is hard,” Siegel and Geller wrote. “But growing older can also be so much more than simply growing old.”
Here’s an anecdote from their book which humorously illustrates the point that you can always find the positive, no matter what the circumstance:
“Four residents of a retirement home are discussing their respective ailments. ‘My cataracts are so bad that I’m close to blind,’ says one man. ‘I’m having a terrible time with my hearing,’ a woman chimes in. ‘My blood pressure pills make me dizzy,’ says another. ‘Well,’ says a fourth, ‘I guess that’s the price we pay for getting old. But let’s count our blessings. At least we can all still drive.’ “