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How Do You Characterize Aging?

Slapping labels on age groups benefits no one.

Key points

  • Anti-aging can be a morbid term, even though it is liberally used to market most beauty and health products.
  • To welcome older age is to continue to grow using the gifts, life lessons, and scientific research already handed to you.
  • Ageism is alive and well, promoted by those who need to take this sacred thing we call life and reduce it to a label.

Recently I was contacted out of the blue by a company that provides wellness products for healthy aging. Someone there had read a number of my (R)aging with Grace posts and took to the way I characterize my “third trimester” of life, using humor and awe as a matter-of-fact approach to growing older. Let’s face it — positive aging takes as much hard work as it does to get through the first trimester of life — without the morning sickness of adolescence, of course.

 Marcus Aurelius
Source: Pexels: Marcus Aurelius

This company is planning what they call a “pro-aging” event, to be held in the Big Apple, and invited me to serve as one of its potential panelists. I say “pro-aging” because — to my delight — their philosophy encompasses getting rid of the word “anti-aging.” I was intrigued and agreed wholeheartedly with them over a Zoom call a few days later.

When you think about it, anti-aging is a morbid term, even though it is liberally used to market every beauty and health product known to man. The unfiltered truth? To fail to age is to take the dirt nap. So why should you adopt the term any more than you would “anti-growth?” To grow is, after all, to LIVE.

It’s all relative

Here is how I look at it: To welcome older age is to continue to grow using the gifts, life lessons, and scientific research already handed to you. If you don’t move, you’ll turn to stone. Sobering. Every bit of food you eat (good or bad) is like medicine, used by your body in different ways, and now is the time to ingest it wisely. Not fun, but logical. If your body lacks certain things that enable good health, there are plenty of wellness products that can help with that. The work is in paying attention to all that, instead of accepting that no matter what you do, it won’t matter anyway.

Stereotypes abound when speaking about the stages of life. When you’re young and inexperienced, what could you possibly know about the big picture — so you’re written off until you reach what is considered true “adult” age, when you should know better. And when you’ve reached the age of 55 or older (now hit in the face with “Hey Boomer” responses any time you say something younger generations prefer to dismiss), you’re reduced to a category as well.

Bottom line: Ageism is alive and well, promoted by those who need to take this sacred thing we call life and reduce it to a label.

Analyzing your own experience with ageism

NPR Life Kit’s Andee Tagle asks, “What comes to mind when you think of aging? Is it wrinkles and gray hair? Trouble with technology? Crankiness, achy bones or being hard of hearing?” While she acknowledges that age is truly just a number, she also looked into how we personally think about aging in terms of how it can impact us on behavioral, psychological and even physiological levels we couldn’t even begin to fathom.

Experts agree that older people with positive perceptions of aging perform better physically and cognitively than those with negative perceptions. They tend to be more likely to recover from severe disability, they maintain better memory, and yes — they even walk faster and live longer.

Preventative care now means changing the way you think about aging, along with the other efforts you make with diet and exercise. “Ridding yourself of negative age beliefs is easier said than done,” says Tagle. “From age-defying wrinkle creams to ads poking fun at senior citizens, ageist stereotypes are all around us — and their impact is much more than skin-deep.” She reports on how, in the U.S., age prejudice has been called one of the most socially-condoned and institutionalized forms of prejudice, and goes on to say that a recent United Nations study suggests half of the world's entire population holds ageist attitudes.

Characterizations of agesim

Does it hurt to even READ that? You bet it does. Because ageism can raise its ugly head in employment opportunities, housing, and even health care. She quotes Becca Levy, Yale researcher and author of Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long and Well You Live, who encourages everyone to shift the way they think about aging by internalizing more positive age beliefs — all leading to what she calls “age liberation.”

Levy says that in order to get to the bottom of your own belief system, try writing down every portrayal of aging you come across — not just what you observe when you’re out and about, but also in advertising, TV shows or even conversations with your own health care professionals. How about your health insurance company, who might tell you that past a certain age, certain diagnostics are no longer warranted because you probably wouldn’t outlive the condition anyway? Okay — they don’t quite put it that way, but it’s implied. “This can reveal the areas in your life where explicit and implicit biases might lie,” she says. "Questioning the negative portrayals is really important.” This might include how you observe the way people speak to older adults in more simplified language or louder than they do with younger folk.

In my own experience, I am constantly taken aback by how “seasoned adults” are portrayed in TV shows and movies. Those of you old enough to know about or recall The Twilight Zone series know Rod Serling was preoccupied with two themes that coursed through his shows — war and the fear of death. Ironically enough, Mr. Serling died fairly young, at age 51. In his thought-provoking scripts, people in their 50s were portrayed as aged, making deals with the devil to live longer.

Recently, however, my husband and I have been binge-watching old sitcoms like Cheers, where any cast member in their late 30s and 40s was upset that life was passing them by in very short order. In a spin-off series, how about how Frasier’s dad was considered “elderly” at age 62, when the show started with Frasier Crane being forced to “take him in,” along with his old recliner and little dog Eddy?

Are things changing? Could be. “Older” actors like Tom Cruise, Judi Dench, Leonardo DiCaprio, Helen Mirren, Tom Hanks, Samuel L. Jackson, and Gary Oldman (not to mention the ageless (late) Sean Connery and George Clooneys of the world), are not used to portray doddering old folks in their 50s, 60s and 70s. So perhaps Hollywood is getting the message. Either that, or the people writing scripts (or their bosses) are older and know the difference.

“Older people, like any other group, aren't a monolith,” says Tagle. “Don't assume every grandpa in your life has the same interests. Referencing Levy’s studies, Tagle says it’s important to build up a diverse and nuanced portfolio of positive aging influences in your life. But you can’t do that if you hang out with your age peers. If you do, you are truly robbing yourself of the wealth as well as the depth of wisdom varying generations can offer you.

If you are close to my age and take the stance that you’re early into your third trimester of life, you’ll realize it is often ageism that makes growing older difficult, not the aging process itself. How often do you see people much younger than yourself having “senior moments” when they can’t find their car keys or forgot an appointment? To forget is human. Period.

According to Levy, the more we challenge negative age beliefs, the less firm their grasp will be. Her advice is — no matter what your age — to call out ageist behavior when you see it. “That could look like questioning your coworker's old-timer joke, talking to your siblings about the way they interact with your grandparents or stopping your parents from using ageist language on themselves,” she says.

I love the way David Bowie referred to growing older: “Aging is an extraordinary process where you become the person you always should have been.”


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