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Feeling "Old?" What Do You Mean?

Let's rethink what it means when we use this familiar phrase.

Key points

  • Families, media, and broader culture all perpetuate stereotypical ideas of aging that later become self-fulfilling prophecies.
  • Instead of using the phrase "I feel old," look for the feeling beneath it and describe it directly — without the ageist characterization.
  • Positive aspects of "feeling old" might include having the time to pursue one's passions, or perhaps the pride of having raised children.

“Feeling old” today? You are not alone. This phrase gets tossed around frequently, but have you ever stopped to think about what it means? After all, as any psychologist will tell you, "old" is not a feeling.

In my experience, people usually “feel old” when they are in some kind of pain or discomfort (think: warming up at the gym). Or, it may be when they feel inferior or incompetent (think: watching a child nimbly troubleshoot a smartphone). Generally, it seems to point to feeling sick, burdensome, curmudgeonly, decrepit, demoralized, forgetful, feeble, or even lonely.

Josu Ozkaritz/Shutterstock
Source: Josu Ozkaritz/Shutterstock

Let’s face it, we have some really negative associations with aging. But the problem isn’t just with “feeling old.” It gets worse when we think about what it means when we say we are “feeling young (again).” When we feel young, we typically mean we are feeling energetic, courageous, beautiful, healthy, and active. Someone who is “young at heart” is enthusiastic about life, learning, and taking on new challenges. Yet, I’m sure you have personally known older adults who have stayed socially connected and in relatively robust health until the very final months of their lives. I had an aunt who lived to 100 who swam at the YMCA throughout her later years.

So, why shouldn’t these experiences also be part of what it can “feel like” to be 70, 80, 90 years old? Why does this person have to be “young at heart?" Why can’t she just be a robust, healthy, and happy older person?

The origin and effects of ageist beliefs

Where do we get these ideas? From my own experience, and what I observe in my clinical work, it seems like it comes from our families, media representations of aging, and the broader culture as a whole. We drink in a lot of ageism from our earliest years. By the time we reach our own later years, we are drowning in it. In my work with older adults, I routinely hear comments like “People don’t want to hear what an old guy like me has to say,” “I’m not supposed to want to have sex anymore,” “I’m nothing but a burden now.”

Ageist beliefs aren’t just bad because they are another "-ism." They are bad because they can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. We need to change how we frame the experience of aging because our stereotypes about the experience are not serving us. We might, for example, stop and pause when we say we are “feeling old” and inquire what the real feeling is beneath that. We might even stop before we use that phrase and share the actual feeling instead. How about next time your knees ache, you just say “my knees ache?"

The upside of feeling "old"

What are some positive ways in which we might “feel old?"

Maybe when we retire and finally have time to pursue a lifelong passion. When our hearts burst with pride to see the amazing adults our children have become. Or maybe “feeling old” can happen when we sit with our dying parents or siblings and feel full of gratitude for all the life we shared with them. Or, it can refer to that realization that we’ve survived hardship in our lives and we wouldn’t trade it for anything because it taught us something important. Dare I say, it could even refer to the pleasures of intimacy with a partner you’ve had for 20 or more years.

We could look to the good in aging, in ourselves and others, and speak it out loud when we see it. We can show our children and grandchildren new ways to think about aging to slowly change the conversation about what it means to be, and “feel,” old.

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