“Age isn’t what happens to you – it’s what you do with what happens to you!”These words, used to sign off from a radio show for “Boomers and Beyond”, hold more than a grain of truth.
As the largest group in history continues to pass its 65th birthday, we must rethink the widespread assumptions about aging and plan a road map of what we want for us, our children and grandchildren, within a more conscious society.
When someone reaches the age of 65 nowadays, they have a very good chance to live another 20 years. Therefore we need a road map to help us move through those 20 plus years, in ways unknown to all but a few members of the generations before us.
Let’s look at the existing route to old age through some of the myths told about it.
I recently asked a group of 7th grade students from a private school in Los Angeles what they imagined when they saw a building – even a beautiful apartment building – that had “Seniors” in its name. They described scenes of people sitting in wheelchairs staring vacantly into space; people with nothing to do except to wait to die. These children had already taken in ageist attitudes and imagined all seniors to be a reflection of our worst fears.
Other prevalent myths that increase the fear of aging – countered, in the philosophy of this blog, by stories from my experience and research – follow:
“Age equals Infirmity”. Richard, aged 91, enthusiastically described the TV pilot he is acting in. Four out of five people are likely to live into healthy old age if they take care of their health.
The “Scarcity” myth describes seniors as unproductive and a drain on diminishing resources. A new system of accounting is needed to balance the cost of social security with the contributions of retired people to social institutions. For example: a senior mentors program involves at-risk students in arts programs and provides free services that a teacher would be paid for and the seniors also contribute towards positive self-image of the students by believing in them..
The “Scarcity” myth is countered by the “Over-productive” myth where seniors refuse to retire and continue to occupy jobs much needed by young people. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that baby boomers will vacate 33 million jobs, primarily in teaching, management, library science, administration and nonprofit arenas.
The “Disengagement” myth holds that all old people become diminished and retreat into isolation. At age 84, Western singer Buck Page performed his last CD launch before thousands of people.
The “Too Old to Learn” myth is being discredited by millions of people enrolled in Lifelong Learning programs, where they learn new languages, acting, writing screenplays and poetry for the first time, painting, sculpting and ways to use computers, to keep up with their family members. Furthermore scientists recently documented the brain’s capacity to regenerate well into the eighth decade.
We have help from every direction to view aging as a problem, to believe the often-repeated myths and to fear it for ourselves. Our self-concepts as we age are too often guided by the myths deeply rooted in this fertile fear filled ground. As John F. Kennedy said “The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived and dishonest – but the myth – persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Too often […] we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”
It is only by shining a light on these myths about aging as well as the language they engender, can we begin to change the way aging is regarded and map out for ourselves how we want to age.