An acquaintance of mine told me the following story: His mother had recently moved into a new condominium on Miami Beach. It was located in a beautiful building with all of the amenities one would desire - pool, concierge, restaurant, and a fantastic list of daily social activities. But she had one major complaint: "I can't stand being around all of those old ladies!" she informed him one day. "But how old is your mother?" I asked him. He smiled; "She just turned 92."
Being "old" is often a state we ascribe to other people. Each stage in our lives seems to be the most normal of times, with "old" being something someone else is. This attitude should not come as a surprise, because we tend to define being old in such negative ways, as full of mental and physical decline, losses of loved ones, depression, and the ever approaching boom of death. Under these conditions, who would want to define themselves as old? No doubt the 92 year-old woman looks around at her peers and projects all of the feared miseries of old age onto them. It's a common defense mechanism to shield us from the real fears we all have of aging.
But for a moment, think of being "old" in a different way. Imagine the attributes of old age being personal strength, emotional maturity, increased knowledge, enhanced wisdom and creativity, declines in worry and stress levels and greater feelings of well-being. Does this sound right? How can this be true given all the struggles we see people face as they age?
As I describe in my book How We Age: A Doctor's Journey Into The Heart Of Growing Old, both of these perspectives on aging have validity. We do face losses. We do face declines in memory and motor speed. And we all eventually die without ever knowing with any degree of certainty what it's all about. But that is only one side of the story. Aging gives even as it takes away. As we age, we gain knowledge and new and more practical and tolerant ways of thinking about life - termed wisdom. And according to a study on psychological well-being conducted by the Gallup Organization of over 340,000 people ages 18 to 85, we report the lowest levels of stress and worry and the highest levels of well-being by age 85.
The relative gains and losses we face as we age may seem completely out of our control, but that's not entirely true. We can't cure aging - and despite claims to the contrary, we can't even slow down the process a bit. But there is a lot we can do to prepare for old age (see my top ten tips on aging well here), as well to address many of the challenging aspects of aging when they do occur. And the way we think about growing old will often shape how we eventually experience it.
The 92 year-old woman who sees herself as different from her peers may be commended for her youthful spirit and her fierce desire to still see herself as strong and independent. But without equal recognition and acceptance of the shared strengths (and weaknesses) that she has with all of the other "old ladies," she may miss out on some life-affirming connections, activities, and relationships that could add even greater meaning to her life.