Am I delusional to think the "best years are yet to come?" Which Is It? Is it what I wrote in my Psychology Today blog, "Aging with Panache-Mikhail Baryshnikov Shows the Way" that one can age with style or what Susan Jacoby warns in her new book, The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age, that "only a fool can imagine the best years are yet to come." It's a conundrum!
I recently participated in a conference called, "A Lifetime of Possibilities" sponsored by SCOPE, a county non-profit whose mission is to inspire individuals to create better community. The speakers touted opportunities for reinvention and rejuvenation. But it is important to pay attention to the counter argument, which highlights the misery and losses that may accompany aging.
To get a handle on the issue, let's look at some data. According to the new Pew Research Center Social & Demographic Trends report, "Growing Old in America: Expectations vs. Reality," (2009) getting old isn't nearly as bad as people think it will be. In fact, on aspects of everyday life ranging from mental acuity to physical dexterity to sexual activity to financial security, a survey on aging among a nationally representative sample of 2,969 adults finds a sizable gap between the expectations that young and middle-aged adults have about old age and the actual experiences reported by older Americans themselves.
These disparities come into sharpest focus when survey respondents are asked about a series of negative benchmarks often associated with aging, such as illness, memory loss, an inability to drive, an end to sexual activity, a struggle with loneliness and depression, and difficulty paying bills. In every instance, older adults report experiencing them at lower levels (often far lower) than younger adults report expecting to encounter them when they grow old.
Ted Fishman, best-selling author of Shock of Gray, resolved this conundrum in a speech recently sponsored by The Institute for the Ages, a national organization focusing on aging in Sarasota, Florida. He suggests that we live with two realities and used his own experience to illustrate the point. His father was ill for 16 years and Ted rushed to his father's deathbed repeatedly. On the other hand, his 83-year-old mother is about to take a major trip. Fishman is suggesting that death, dying, and misery live alongside activity, productivity, and engagement.
Which side you take might depend on the culture and environment in which you live. Fishman compared Rockford, Illinois and Sarasota, Florida. In Rockford, everyone over 50 feels old; in Sarasota, a county with a large older demographic (more than 40% of the population is 50 and older) and where aging is discussed and studied, the ethos is that no matter how old you are chronologically, you're young, you still count.
Which version of aging is your version? Do you see the glass as half full or half empty? Psychologists Ellen Langer and Becca Levy asked 650 adults to respond to positive or negative statements about aging. Twenty years later, they checked the records of those they interviewed and found that "those who viewed aging more positively lived, on average, seven and a half years longer than those who were negative about it."
Clearly I am a fool because I am committed to the view of aging as filled with possibilities even though I see death and darkness in many corners.