I have to admit that as I get older, I get more tired. Not so much physically or mentally, although I do have my moments of fatigue (doesn’t everyone at every age?). No –– what I’m tired of is the ubiquitous, insidious, and rather stupid meme that considers aging to be a process of nothing but deterioration and decline. It’s a handy propaganda tool for feeding the coffers of the anti-aging cosmetics, supplements, and plastic surgery industries and pressuring us older adults to remain moored to the dock of middle age rather than to cast off and sail in whatever new directions we choose.
The deterioration-decline meme originates in a narrow perception of the lifespan that is blind to the priceless assets we accrue as we add years to our lives. And this blindness stimulates the deep-seated societal fear known as ageism, which further limits that perception. Breaking this cycle of prejudice isn’t easy, but it’s possible, once we understand exactly what we gain because of, rather than despite, aging. Here are those great assets.
- Broader experience, sharper skills, and greater wisdom. It doesn’t take sophisticated logic to understand that the longer we live, the more things we learn and experience. We add skills to our repertoire and get better at the ones we continue to apply. We also develop greater wisdom about the world as we are exposed to more people, places, things, and ideas –– provided that we recognize and integrate the lessons they teach us.
- Greater individuation. The longer we live, the more choices we make and directions we take, which in turn lead to other ones. Each of our lives evolves as a tree that continues to grow branches, twigs, shoots, and leaves. As a result we become more dissimilar than alike as members of a generation. And that’s a good thing, because we add to the diversity of humankind and to what we can share with younger generations.
- Closer proximity to mortality. Yes, it’s true that no matter our age, any of us can die from a terrible accident, traumatic illness, natural disaster, or cruel human act. But in the course of a life otherwise undisturbed by these events, our consciousness of mortality grows, and this increased ability gives us elders the advantage of savoring moments as the precious gifts they are.
- Different motives and life purpose. According to developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, aging involves the evolution of individual personality. In the late 1950s, he posited the now-well-accepted paradigm of eight stages of personality development from birth through old age. The last stage (past age 65) is characterized by a person’s need and desire to reflect back on the life he or she has lived and to make sense of it. It’s a process equivalent to what is known as “spiritual eldering.” No longer is it important to struggle for recognition or success according to society’s terms. The motives of old age are to “put all the pieces together” and to find a personal sense of fulfillment. This awareness is an asset not acquired without first having faced and overcome other emotional challenges over a six-decades-plus lifetime.
- A different brain. All of the above assets can be attributed to an additional asset: the experience of age-related changes that occur in the human brain. For example, a healthy human brain keeps growing new cells and new connections between existing cells throughout life. In addition, the bridge of tissue known as the corpus callosum, which connects the left and right hemispheres, doesn’t fully mature until a person reaches about 50 years old, and this helps explain why older adults are able to solve problems from a greater number of perspectives: Their hemispheres operate in greater sync. Also, the ability known as crystallized intelligence grows with age and allows for better application of past experiences to help discriminate relevant from irrelevant information when problem-solving. While there are some declines in cognition that can occur with age, the fact that some major benefits also can be accrued should tell us that aging isn’t the downhill trajectory we are led to believe it is.
- Strength in numbers. This is probably the most significant asset of all, because there are so many more of us adding to the older population each day. Aside from climate change, the global aging of the population is the most significant force affecting our planet now and in years to come. How societies respond to this force will determine whether and how we will survive. With our five other assets displaying themselves in a myriad of ways, we older adults can demonstrate clearly that what many people believe is a “silver tsunami” beginning to threaten society is actually a “silver reservoir” full of promise, purpose, and yes, assets, waiting to be tapped and shared with future generations.
The next time you encounter someone pushing the deterioration-decline meme, feel free to explain any or all of these six great assets. Better yet, don’t wait until the occasion arises. Proudly embody them every day in your words and actions.
In time, the people who rely on that meme will get very tired of using it.