How old would you say this person is?
- Jumps out of bed every morning eager to embrace the day.
- Visits her many communities of family and friends regularly.
- Cycles, practices Yoga, Pilates, Tai Chi, Qigong, and more.
- Loves to learn new things, especially involving travel.
- Enjoys excellent health, has a zest for life.
She could be any one of my friends, but the woman described above will be a septuagenarian next year – yes, seventy! Did you expect her to be younger? In which case you may unwittingly be contributing to our culture’s negative bias towards aging.
The prevailing mindset until relatively recently has been that aging involves a progressive decline in health, mental acuity, and activity. Advances in medicine, science, and technology, however, are contributing to increased longevity and as the Boomer generation got older, they’ve helped bring about a distinctive paradigm shift. So that rather than thinking of themselves as “decrepit,” “senile,” and “over-the-hill,” many of today’s older adults are finding that they are ready, willing, and able to continue to climb new metaphorical hills. Rather than accepting that their lives are on the decline, some are choosing to continue to live their lives with an attitude of incline. And they are thriving!
What is not helping is that in the media and society generally there continues to be somewhat of a negative connotation surrounding the concept of aging. And while, at least at the moment, we cannot do anything about the chronological process of becoming 60, 70, 80 years and beyond, we can perhaps change the term for it. So that instead of continuing to hold onto a word that is considered synonymous with “fading,” “waning,” and “wearing out,” we take on a word that used to be revered in past times and still is in many parts of the world: “elder.”
But what is it about “aging” that is like a self-fulfilling prophesy for so many? I believe there are three conditions that promote this negative concept. They are what I call the “Calamitous Cs.”
THE CALAMITOUS Cs
COMPLACENCY for some may conjure up the image presented by Irish poet W.B. Yeats (1865-1939) who, in When You Are Old, alludes to being “gray and full of sleep and nodding by the fire.” Could it be that what complacent people have settled for represents an underlying fear of change? Indeed, complacency can be disguised in the form of contentedness and comfortability. Yet isn’t it often more about living life on autopilot?
CONVENTIONALITY is common to those whose sense of safety is bound up with an adherence to known customs, rules, and procedures. Yet it also conjures up images of living life in a way that is absent of any sense of adventure, curiosity, or creativity. Because forever playing lip service to the adage that “this is the way it’s always been done so why change?” is, as Grace Hopper, U.S. Navy rear admiral and computer scientist once pointed out, “The most damaging phrase” in our language.
COMPLIANCE may involve buying into the media and society’s propaganda about aging and suggests a conscious yielding to the wishes of others. In other words, acquiescence, submissiveness, and conformity. I picture a body of people marching in lockstep in mindless adherence to the dictates of others and in so doing they minimize, if not obliterate, their own unique individuality. Those who practice compliance are often described as exacting and systematic.
In order to shed the shackles of the “Calamitous Cs” and not be sucked in by the declining negative rhetoric of aging, why not replace them with the three positive “Constructive Cs”? Especially if you’re serious about living a life of continuous incline.
THE CONSTRUCTIVE Cs
CHANGE can be a frightening concept. It’s so safe and secure to continue to be cocooned within the warmth and coziness of a fixed decline mindset. It takes guts to step outside the safety of your comfort zone and peer at the wonderful world that awaits you. Rhonda, a 60-something former teacher, made a significant change in her lifestyle and hasn’t looked back! After her husband passed away, she decided to travel the country by RV. She had many good reasons for her choice of travel, but her quote sums it up best: “In the end, we only regret the chances we didn’t take and the decisions we waited too long to make.”
Perhaps you might start making changes in your life with baby steps – literally. As my Pilates teacher advocates “movement is medicine.” Perhaps an early morning walk? A recent study published in the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience indicates that routine physical activity can reverse signs of aging in the brain. Interestingly, dancing is the most effective. A very good reason for kicking up your heels! Keep a diary and daily enter new activities you have tried and accomplished. Celebrate your successes to prove to yourself that change is easier than you think.
CURIOSITY means waking up each morning with a sense of inquisitiveness, a sense of wonder, and a desire to learn something new. According to Carnegie Mellon’s Professor of Economics and Psychology, George Loewenstein, curiosity, “Is the feeling that occurs when we experience a gap between what we know and what we want to know.” Curiosity can also help make you smarter because it enhances learning and a youthful sense of fun. For example, a friend who recently retired from his position as an executive for a major company had always had a fascination with magic. He was curious to see how he might pursue that interest and has become quite an adept magician. Performing magic for people young and old has given him an opportunity to bring wonder and delight to others and in so doing has injected more joy in his own life.
Embracing change and looking at life with a keener sense of curiosity will lead to living with increased courage. A courage to live life to its fullest.
COURAGE to live a more meaningful life can be mustered in a myriad of ways. It entails a boldness to take the first step on a new journey and face the fear of the unknown. This brings to mind Martin Luther King’s famous words, “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” You could start a new hobby as Man Kaur, a woman runner from India, did in 2009. She started running on a whim, loved it, and hasn’t stopped. Now at the age of 101, this centenarian is currently training for the Asia Pacific Masters Games in Malaysia in September 2018.
According to Earl Miller, a professor of neuroscience at MIT, “For the most part, we simply can’t focus on more than one thing at a time.” He contends that what we can do is switch from task to task with astonishing speed. So rather than focus on fear, focus on taking action. Make a commitment to something that inspires you — perhaps piqued by your newfound curiosity and desire for change. In that way you will be focusing on something besides whatever it is you fear and that fear will be neutralized. This cycle will lead to renewed confidence and even greater courage. As Eleanor Roosevelt so aptly said, “The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”
So, can we stop talking about aging as if it is synonymous with a mindset of decline? Because many of us are choosing to embrace an attitude of incline.
How do I know this? Because the energetic, vibrant, healthy, connected “elder” I described earlier – is me!