The Book Brigade talks to psychotherapist Andrea Brandt.
Posted November 2, 2017
Forget all those TV commercial for arthritis and sexual dysfunction; they’re way behind the emerging mindset. Conventional approaches to aging highlight the negative and regard aging as a catastrophe you've got to manage. Rather, in the 21st century, it’s more an opportunity to seize, with many adventures still ahead.
What is mindful aging?
Mindful aging is aging in a way that doesn't deny the negatives of getting older but doesn't blow them out of proportion and dwell on them either. Instead, it turns the mind to the benefits of aging, of which there are many. I want people to look at aging with what I call "realistic positivity." Realistic positivity means seeing and accepting what is—both inside ourselves and in the world—and then shifting our focus to what we would love.
How does it differ from conventional approaches to aging?
Conventional approaches to aging are much more focused on the negatives. They treat aging like a catastrophe you've got to manage rather than as an opportunity you've got to seize. And they put limitations on what one can accomplish in their later years. A conventional approach to aging asks the question, "What retirement community should I join?" rather than, "What should my next adventure be?" Or "How should I reinvent myself today?"
What stereotypes about aging hinder people the most?
Just watch any commercial for arthritis or sexual dysfunction medication, and you'll see the problem: Older people are either in pain and miserable or they are playing golf. There's no room in these stereotypes for accomplishing anything after 50.
Getting older becomes an unhappy prospect when people have to convince themselves that there is a wrong way to age and a right way to age, and TV and movies try to do a lot of convincing. We've got to free ourselves from society's expectations in order to decide for ourselves what older age should look like for us.
How do they hold people back? From what?
They close people off from all the opportunities of aging. If the only images you see of older people are stereotypes, but the stereotypical retiree lifestyle makes you miserable, you may end up believing there's something wrong with you when there's really just something wrong with the lifestyle. You could take up a whole new hobby or even career after 50 and be passionate about it. It could be the happiest time in your life, but not if you limit yourself to the stereotypes.
Why is 50 a critical age?
Fifty is the age at which many of us start to think about what life will be like after our career is over and our kids have grown. Retirement may be 15 or 20 years away and the kids may still live at home, but we start to wonder what life will be like without those obligations. You're not over the hill; you're at the top of the mountain. There is no "over the hill" if you're still climbing. To me, anything you do that helps you grow as a person is climbing.
How did you come to your perspective?
I was raised in a very matriarchal family in which the women continued to thrive and be productive into their 90s. There was no magic age at which these amazing women were expected to withdraw from life. They decided for themselves what aging should look like. I live by their example. I'm busier now than I've ever been. I wrote this book to show others how they can live with the same thirst for life as the women who raised me did.
Do you see attitudes about aging changing in America?
They'll have to, won't they? The baby boomers are all over 50 now, and there are a lot of us; we're not going anywhere. The more people see all the different ways one can use their older age, when there are a variety of healthy models of aging, attitudes will change.
What kinds of things can people get out of their older lives that they couldn’t before? And why?
After 50 years of life, we know ourselves pretty well. Older people can use all that self-knowledge to make wiser and more authentic decisions about what they want to do with their time and what kind of people they want as companions. We've got more available time in which to follow our interests, too. If there's something you've always wanted to do or a place you've always wanted to visit, the time to do it is now. You've also got the opportunity now to fix mistakes or make amends for things that happened earlier in your life.
What do people most need to change their mindset to get the most out of their older years?
They need to remove phrases like "I'm too old to..." from their self-talk. There are very few things one is genuinely too old for. If there's something you've always wanted to do and you're passionate about it, don't let the year on your birth certificate stand in your way.
People also need to start making decisions based on joy. We spend so much of our lives doing what's best for other people—our bosses, our kids. Older age is the time where you should follow your joy. The time of doing what other people want or expect you to do is over. Now is the time to do what you would love.
Who would most benefit from reading your book?
Well, of course, I'm going to say "everyone"! But, more specifically, everyone over 50 who wants to answer the question, "What will I do with the time I have left?" In the book, I talk about life after 50 as your "longevity bonus." One hundred years ago, 50 was the average lifespan. Now it's almost 80. By that math, 50 IS the new 20. That's a lot of years left in which to explore, learn, fall in love, have adventures, create, and grow as people.
If you had one piece of advice, what would it be?
My book is full of advice, of course, but if I had to pull out just one piece of advice, it’s one that I think many people don’t consider when they imagine older age: Aging shouldn't be done alone. We should be socializing a lot after 50. New friendships and romantic relationships can—and should—be found, and we should tend to and nurture our current ones. There are tips in my book about where to meet people and how to develop relationships. Aging can become lonely once our kids have grown up and moved out and we don't have a job to go to every day. In the book, I also talk about how to keep the sexual passion going even after our baby-making hormones have died down. That's a topic that doesn't get focused on as much as it should.
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To purchase this book visit: Mindful Aging