“He won’t change. What do you expect? He’s a 71-year-old man.”
Lately I’ve been hearing this comment, or some version of it, on various cable and mainstream news programs, always referring to a certain Leader of the Free World / Commander in Chief / Current Inhabitant of the Oval Office.
But I’ve also heard this comment, or some version of it (at times adjusted for gender) in many other contexts. Such as when referring to an older woman who insists to her adult children that she wants to age in her own home rather than be “put” in a nursing home. Or when discussing the angst of trying to get the car keys away from dear, confused Dad before he kills himself or someone else.
Many Americans embrace the distorted idea that a person’s age is inversely proportional to his or her capacity to change. Somehow we have developed the ageist assumption that our values, beliefs, and behaviors, like our arteries, harden with the years and that if we live long enough, most of us will morph into the caricatured crotchety hag or the get-off-my-lawn geezer. That’s Just. Not. True.
So you’ll excuse me, dear reader, if I do a slow burn.
Sure, there are elders who are more determined than ever to hold on to lifestyles to which they have grown accustomed and continue to treasure. But if we’re honest, don’t we know people in their 40s –– or even their 20s –– who do the same thing? The ability and desire to change are not age-determined. They are a function of an individual’s curiosity, flexibility, confidence, and courage –– personality traits that can be developed at any time and, in fact, are more likely to grow as we age.
If anyone you know needs convincing of this, ask them to consider these realities:
Older adults almost always have the capacity to change. Neuroscientific studies are revealing all the time important assets of aging, including greater brain capacity and more subtle and sophisticated ways of interpreting and applying information. Even older adults with cognitive impairment are often able to change their perceptions and behavior when provided compassionate, person-centered care in a supportive environment.
Older adults almost always have the desire to change. We have only to look at the burgeoning numbers of “encore” careers and “elderpreneur” businesses to see that many older adults are not only capable of but eager to transition to newer ways of being productive, giving back to society, and leaving a lasting and meaningful legacy.
Older adults are always coping with and adjusting to change. Whether it’s dealing with physical changes to the body; deaths of family members, friends, and other peers; decreasing workplace opportunities; transitions to other housing situations; or increasing economic instability, older adults constantly confront internal and external changes. And they do so with the added challenges of maintaining their dignity and autonomy in a youth-centered, youth-obsessed society. If we consciously observe and talk with as many elders as we can, we will realize that being stubborn or otherwise incapable of embracing change, and therefore not changing, is the exception rather than the rule as people get older. Flexibility and resilience are the hallmarks of age.
We must reject the assertions of media pundits, business managers, nonprofit administrators, friends, family members, and all others who use age as a justification for individual intransigence. They are simply wrong. Stubbornness, ignorance, and fear can inhabit a person at any point in life, be it at age 21 or 71. So can adaptability, wisdom, and audacity. Self-transformation is always a personal choice.
I hope that we will educate ourselves as a society and realize that age in itself is not a factor in the evolution of an individual’s personality. And I look forward to a time when we respond more truthfully, naturally, and forcefully to ageism:
“Of course s/he can change. What should you expect? S/He’s a(n) [XX]-year-old person.”