If you’re alive, you’re aging.
Forgive me for stating the obvious, but it’s worth noting that people have varying degrees of awareness of this fact. Some of us are conscious of the reality of getting older on an almost constant basis. Others of us barely give it a thought. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle.
What’s more important, perhaps, isn’t how often we think about aging but rather, how we feel about it when we do. Are those thoughts positive or negative ones? Do we welcome them or try to keep them from coming to mind at all? Our relationship with the aging process not only tells us important things about how we see ourselves but also about our willingness to see others of all ages as equally viable human beings.
And so, the question arises: What’s your relationship with aging? I ask the question in this way because living with aging is analogous to having a relationship with another person, which can be described in one of four ways.
Aging as an “enemy”
People who experience aging in combative terms are doing so from a place of fear. To them, getting older means becoming more vulnerable to inevitable degeneration and decline. It’s a threat they struggle to defeat despite the reality that aging is a natural process of life. Nevertheless, they do all that they can to hold aging at bay for as long as possible by using such weapons as Botox, hair dye, and suspect nutritional supplements.
Aging as a “stranger”
People who treat aging as a stranger are basically in denial about the fact that they are getting older. Aging takes on the veneer of unfamiliarity, of being foreign to one’s personal experience. “Who me?” they say. “No way! I’m not old.” Of course, this reaction is based on the same kind of fear with which one confronts an enemy, only the tactic is more one of flight rather than fight.
Aging as a “neighbor”
Many people treat aging in the same way that they might tolerate an unpleasant next door neighbor whom they occasionally feel obligated to acknowledge during brief encounters while trimming the hedges or retrieving the morning paper. They are polite and try to keep the interaction short. They deal with their aches and pains as inevitable latter-years symptoms and stoically endure experiences of ageism, all the while failing to perceive any advantages to getting older.
Aging as a “friend”
This kind of relationship is characterized by meaningful engagement. Like any friendship, aging can be sometimes challenging and problematic but also deeply rewarding in the many experiences and insights it brings. People who treat the aging process as a valued friend mindfully seek to nurture it and will defend its honor and dignity when confronted by outsiders who threaten to diminish its importance. They stand up to ageism just as they would to a bully who is pushing their friend around. And they look forward to more years of such a fulfilling relationship.
It’s easy to see that each of us not only falls somewhere along this enemy-stranger-neighbor-friend spectrum, but that during the course of our lives we often journey from one type of relationship with aging to another.
Consider this: As young children, we can’t wait to get older. When asked our age, we often want to make it very clear that we are “nine and three-quarters” or “almost 12.” Aging is not only our friend but our superhero — able to grant us newly acquired special powers at each stage of life. As teens, we can’t wait to be old enough to drive, then old enough to go to college, then old enough to get a job or get married.
But somewhere along the way, say, around middle age, our youth-centric society begins to pressure us to break up with our friend and see the “reality” of the personal threat that aging poses. Then the process becomes like an “ex” whom we would like to forget but keeps reappearing and has to be dealt with. And the relationship often grows more acrimonious with time.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Our relationship with aging can remain as a loving friendship throughout our lives when we understand that it’s a cumulative experience that provides us with an ever-changing variety of psychological and spiritual gifts –– if we are open to anticipating and accepting them.
So I ask again: What’s your relationship with aging?
If you’ve had a falling out somewhere along the line, maybe it’s time to reconcile.
Good Morning, I am an AGNG 320 student at the Erickson School of Aging and I find this post to be very interesting. I love the way you characterized and humanized aging by bringing the four ways we as humans interact with getting older. Being in my early twenties I can say that I am still in the period of life where aging is a “friend” however, I see through my parents the aspects of aging as a “stranger or enemy”. I think that these are the three most common ways to react to aging because of our very youth-centric society in the west. While Eastern cultures revere getting old as a sign of wisdom, youth is valued in modern society. Much of our medicine and aspects of aging are about staying young instead of embracing getting old. This reminds me of learning about the experimental model of dementia which rethinks how to address dementia to make it a more positive and less fatal. I feel that embracing aging as a “friend” is similar to this concept.
Hello! I’m an AGNG320 student at the Erickson School of Aging. Excellent blog written that started with “if you’re alive, you’re aging”. An opening statement that makes you think before even finishing the article. It describes four different ways how you can cope with the relationship of aging. Not everyone will fell like this way now but one time in your lifetime everyone feels those four types of relationship with aging. Aging as an “enemy” is when you don’t fear aging. Aging as a “stranger” is when you don’t care from the fact that you are aging, you are in constant denial that you are getting older. Aging as a “neighbor” is when we embrace the age as it comes to us. We endure the experience of ageism. Aging as a “friend” is when you look forward to getting older. People who fall in this category treat aging as a process in life. I think right now I’m in the aging as a neighbor because I’m still growing and hitting a transition period in my life in which I’m about to graduate and start a career.
Aging 320 Student @ The Erickson School of Aging says
This post really resonates with me because at the age of 43, I have gone through several of these relationships with aging . I currently feel like I am at the door of Aging as a friend, but finding it hard to close the door on aging as an enemy. In my early 30’s I chose to operate in the aging as a neighbor stage , but couldn’t really label it until reading this super insightful article!
Jae Shin says
After reading this article, I could already imagine myself in other stages of experiencing the process of “aging.” I loved how you were able to define each relationship according to the timeline of people’s lives. For me, it was a learning experience from reading this post as I should think more positively and objectively about aging just because it is part of life. Thank you.
Truly, inspiring! And I loved your opener, “If you’re alive, you’re aging.” The equality in aging is humbling and this piece really captures the spectrum of thoughts and feelings behind it. Just maybe, if we become aware that this is an experience we are all privileged to we may all feel a bit more comfortable and happy in our age. Thank you!!!
Nancy Sherman says
I never really did see anything “wrong” with aging until I started experiencing ageism – I’m so surprised because I honestly don’t feel a day over 18. I am grateful to be fit. I work at it. I have my mind (some little memory slips here and there but mostly I have my mind), My grandson is obsessed with age. He is 4. Yesterday he asked me, “Granners, how did you get old?” So far aging only stings when I am looking for work or walking down the street head on into a group of youngsters – they act like I am invisible…they totally don’t see me and don’t make room for me to pass by. My grandson’s comments do not sting – I find them disarmingly honest and oh so direct. His comments do make me take pause and scratch my head…am I really old?
Jeanette Leardi says
Thanks for your very powerful reply, Nancy. Please check out my latest CA post, “A Guiding Star,” which you helped inspire!
Your articles are so simplistic and so illuminating and always provides me a bright light at the end of the tunnel . It keeps me up beat and positive and at the end of a hectic day , provides solace to the mind and in turn life . Please keep educating us Elders , as we take each day at a time and always remember to embrace AGING as a friend — Always . And keep us mentally geared for the morrow – warm wishes — Arthur James
Jeanette Leardi says
Many thanks for your always kind words, Arthur.