At what age do we give up the right to fail, fall, or forget?

Last night Peso, our rescue dog, attacked the food we had put out in the living room for guests. He's typically well-behaved and gentle, but last night, he behaved like an animal. We quickly scolded him and decided he needed to go to canine university. If you asked us whether we expect perfection from him, we'd be quick to answer "of course not." We might expect a 90 percent success rate, but never perfection. On the other hand, like everyone else, we never consider an instance of misbehavior as part of the 10 percent.

It's the same way we tend to treat older adults. If your parent or grandparent fumbles with the key when trying to open the locked door, we may take the keys and open it ourselves as if we're always successful. If he or she falls we not only rush to help--which may be a good thing--but we take note to make sure it never happens again, which may be a bad thing. And if she or he forgets something we deem worth remembering, we start looking for signs of dementia and take each petty instance of future forgetting as evidence.

If we confined our pets to a cage and if we induced a semi-comatose state in older adults we could make sure misdeeds didn't occur. There would be no failure, falling, nor forgetfulness. Whether beast or beauty, to be alive is to be imperfect, and that should be perfectly fine.

Ellen Langer, Ph.D., is a Harvard professor and the author of many books, including Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility.

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