Training for Elderhood - Part 2
Updated: Nov 4, 2022
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This post is the second part of a 2-part series. “Training for Elderhood – Part 1” brought together the voices of several wise elders in my wellness community to discuss their mindset on active aging, wellness practices, and most important things to keep in mind to live one’s best life. Part 2 will address our culture’s deep-rooted ageism, provide science & research that contradicts the associated conventional beliefs, and suggest a more empowered perspective.
Each of our 4 seasons has inherent natural beauty and value. Spring offers blossoming plants, new life, and birdsong. Summer has its long days and warmer temperatures for us to enjoy cookouts or outings near the water. Autumn provides stunning views with the leaves changing color and painting the ground in beauty. Winter can be striking with its starkness and blankets of snow, all depending upon where we live. Can you imagine a culture that portrays one of the 4 seasons in a pejorative manner? The very notion is ridiculous. Nevertheless, this is how our culture portrays the natural process of growing chronologically older.
Ageism as a phenomenon represents perhaps the last bastion of societal prejudice. From a very early age, we are conditioned to try and hold onto “youth” as defined by our culture at all costs. Scary TV commercials teach us that getting older involves taking more prescription medications to address the diseases and conditions that we can expect. From derogatory birthday cards to people chiding each other for turning a year older, we are programmed to view the aging process in a disparaging manner.
Who stands to make a buck in this paradigm? Indeed, the pharmaceutical, insurance, medical, cosmetics, and even fitness industries all profit from our collective insecurity. This situation is equal opportunity. Women bemoaning the arrival of menopause and all its itinerant “signs of aging” rush to solve what is seen as abnormal with medications, supplements, other “treatments”, and cosmetics. Comparably, midlife men reinforce the stereotype by buying that new car, dating much younger women, or taking supplements advertised to promote greater virility. Those questioning and non-binary have their versions of this as well. No one is immune.
Furthermore, aging often becomes an excuse: people blame any number of health problems or limitations on age.
I remember going to get my first mammogram at age 40. I felt a mixture of anxiety over a new medical test and pride that I was doing the right thing for my health, as my biological mother had 2 occurrences of breast cancer in her early 50’s. The first thing the jaded radiographer said to me was “Congratulations, you’re officially over the hill!” The words of medical professionals can hold so much weight. I was discouraged and scared as I wondered what that was supposed to mean for me, an endurance athlete who takes great care of herself (nothing except that she was rude and unprofessional). Looking back at age 53, I am not sure what hill she meant, and I only feel sorry for her.
According to Tracey Gendron, PhD, a gerontologist and author of the book “Ageism Unmasked: Exploring Age Bias and How to End It”, there is a deep-rooted set of biases about aging. Her work reveals “[the] sentiment that can be found in the prevalence of the anti-aging industry, media portrayals that show older people as feeble and outdated, or downgrading employees based on the stereotype that they’re not technologically savvy.” She frames this work as a meaningful way to address diversity, inclusion, and equity issues.
It is high time to change our narrative. Please allow me to describe a few studies and examples that can provide us with an alternative set of truths.
Meet Dixon Hemphill, a 97-year-old runner featured in Runner’s World, who took up running in his 50’s. He has hundreds of races under his belt and holds several world records for the 95-99 age group. There are age-adjusted reference ranges for an easy way to fairly compare one’s own running pace over time. Three other 70-something runners are featured in the same issue. They’re out there! We just don’t see them, or think they are the exception.
National Geographic paired up with researchers to study the “Blue Zones”, areas of the world whose natives regularly enjoy greater longevity and health than in most other cultures, including the U.S. The mountain highlands of Sardinia, for instance, contains the world’s highest concentration of male centenarians. Okinawa, Japan boasts the world’s longest-lived population – women over the age of 70. This research distilled practices in 9 different areas that contribute to good health & longevity, including plenty of movement, a plant-based diet, eating until only 80% full, having a sense of purpose, and several others.
The Active Grandparent hypothesis, derived from researchers like Harvard evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman, propose that we evolved to stay active through our elder years to help care for the needs of “the village”. The related Grandmother hypothesis suggests that the help of post-menopausal women could enable mothers to have more children. Women with more longevity genes were hence able to have more children with their genetic makeup.
One 1981 experiment by Harvard researcher Ellen Langer looked at the health markers of a group of men in their 70’s and 80’s both before and after a retreat in which they were immersed in an environment that resurrected the year 1959. The news, environment, and conversation reflected that of 20 years earlier. The subjects had to take their own belongings upstairs and perform other, similar activities without extra help. Astonishingly, after this retreat, marked improvements were seen in their cognitive abilities, memory, vision, hearing, blood pressure, arthritis, gait, dexterity, and physical speed. One man even stopped using his cane!
In many other cultures, elders are revered and cherished. They are seen as leaders, the center of the family, and sources of wisdom to be well cared for as needed. Native American, Indian, Greek, Japanese, Korean, and ancient Romans are among these.
There is no denying that we will see a gradual decline in many physiological capacities as we age. If there is a precipitous drop (which is prophesied by our fear-inducing culture), however, there was something wrong to begin with; we plant the seeds for good health from an early age. I have observed through professional and personal experience that we have a “grace period” of sorts until about age 25 or 30 that offsets our youthful naiveté regarding our wellness practices. Nevertheless, as we get older, we can and should be wiser in how we care for our health.
Many people identify age-related arthritis as the sole cause of a painful joint. I absolutely acknowledge that sometimes an arthritic joint can be painful. However, in the case of a painful arthritic knee, isn’t one knee the same age as the other? If both knees are the same age, as they inevitably are, can we really blame age alone for arthritis and pain? In addition, according to research, there is not necessarily a direct association between pain and structural abnormality. That is, sometimes there is pain in the absence of structural abnormality; conversely, pain can be present in the face of “normal” imaging. Food for thought.
To me, growing older is a privilege, normal, and even a cause for celebration. Try not to live with regrets and you will be better prepared for the next life stage. This is what is supposed to happen! There are several perks that come with greater age, including life experience and bonuses like cheaper health insurance & senior discounts. Moreover, we can endeavor wherever possible to create the conditions for our healthspan to equal, or at least come close to, our lifespan. We have control over so much more that we think we do when it comes to our health as we age.
There is a song line from one folk/rock group (the Indigo Girls): “with every lesson learned, a line upon your beautiful face”. A well-lived life creates an energetic glow that comes with being in love with and fully engaged in life. We can choose this as our paradigm.