“Stay young while you can.”
“Everything is downhill after 60.”
“Don’t get older.”
As a physical therapist, specializing in fall prevention, I hear these comments on a daily basis. At first, I was unsure how to best respond. I found myself shaking my head in disagreement or changing the subject to a positive aspect of the day’s session. By remaining silent, I became an accomplice in perpetuating the underlying ageism. I was reinforcing the belief that youth was the pinnacle and aging was to be avoided at all costs. As I progressed in my career, I became frustrated with the frequency at which I was on the receiving end of these remarks. To gain a better understanding, I began to challenge these statements.
“Why do you feel this way?”
“If I’m not getting older, what’s the alternative?”
A common theme in the responses was loss. A loss of physical function or independence, and a feeling of failure by comparison to others. This comparison was rarely directed towards me (or other “youthful” people in the room). Almost always the comparison was with a younger version of themselves. Mourning the loss of a physical ability manifest as an aversion to any exercise deemed easy by their prior selves. Which often led to avoidance of challenging exercises and over time, an increased risk for falls.
In the physical therapy world, balance training is “neuromuscular re-education.” Training the connections between the brain and the muscles to perform a physical task. The cerebellum plays a significant role in the control of movement and balance. It requires error signals for learning to occur. An error signal happens when a movement does not go as planned, or when we fail at a task. It takes repetition, of both successful and failed attempts, to perfect a skilled movement. As children, we don’t learn to stand up and maintain balance on our first try. We didn’t give up learning to stand if we fell down. We also didn’t have a prior set of abilities from an earlier self to use as a comparison. Throughout our lifespan, we must learn to interact with gravity, our environments, and our ever-changing bodies. Growth requires the continual development of new skills— balance is one of the most important.
Often in physical therapy, we will compare someone’s current status to a prior level of function. Does a focus on restoration of past abilities reinforce the ageist idea that aging equates to a loss?
What if the physical changes of aging were viewed the same across the lifespan? As an opportunity for growth versus a need to restore something lost? To focus on learning new skills in a body that is continuously changing rather than comparing and mourning the loss of a past version of ourselves? As our bodies age, we must learn to adapt, and that is not something that should elicit shame. Aging in itself is not a disease or disability that we must recover from!
I now incorporate activities that focus on learning new skills or movement strategies into my treatment sessions. I no longer solely work to obtain skills that have been “lost.” For example, instead of instruction to stand on one leg for 5 seconds, I incorporate standing on one leg into a yoga posture, a tai chi sequence, or stepping over a hurdle. Or rather than running, performing a running type movement on a trampoline while holding on for support. People who were the quickest to give up or doubt themselves became more patient with their progress in these new situations. We are often much more forgiving of our mistakes when trying something new for the first time. Failure is an integral step in gaining a new skill. A greater understanding of this fosters interest in working towards continual growth and improvement rather than avoiding the activities that challenge us.
Rather than continually comparing our physical capabilities to past versions of ourselves, let’s work to shift our focus to celebrate the way our bodies are able to adapt during all stages of aging. Let’s also remember that exercise should be used to enhance participation in life, not just athletic performance or personal aesthetics.
“Don’t get older”?
That is not an option. We are all getting older. Let’s acknowledge that and do a better job of getting older together.