There is a growing sentiment in society today that age is just a number. As our expectations for aging changes, a new mantra is emerging to support this view: “Age be damned.”
At the root of this shift are the scientists who dissect every aspect of growing old—from the impact that lifestyle modifications have on disease management, to preventive strategies that help us age well. These unsung heroes, and their findings, enable us to develop and provide solutions that can reduce many of the challenges and obstacles associated with growing older. Their efforts drive recommendations and demands for new models and social contracts that promote older adults’ abilities and contributions. And their findings encourage us to recognize the benefits of a more cohesive, inclusive society. This growing body of research is not only shifting views and expectations of what is possible over the life course, but redefining the life course as well.
The World Health Organization’s director general shares the new way of thinking. “When a 100-year-old man finishes a marathon, as happened last year, we know that conventional conceptions of old age must change,” said Margaret Chan in her World Health Day message in 2012. And change they are.
A survey from AARP shows that people in their 60s (69%) and 70s (69%) are not letting problems with their physical health hold them back from what they want. Those in their 40s (58%) and 50s (63%), however, find this a bigger issue.
Still, “89% of older adults and 84% of younger adults say they’re confident they can maintain a high quality of life throughout their senior years,” reports a survey conducted by the National Council on Aging, National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, UnitedHealthcare and USA Today.
The question is: Is this raw optimism based on facts or denial of facts?
The same AARP research reveals that 85% of survey respondents, ages 40–90, don’t see themselves as old yet. For the poll, individuals were asked the question, “At what age is a person ‘old’?” People in their 40s said 63; individuals in their 50s thought 68; adults in their 60s answered 73, and those in their 70s said 75. So respondents consistently viewed “old” as a future state. But there is a disconnect between how we see ourselves and how we see others. This disconnect may be because we tend to think of ourselves as 10–15 years younger than we are, or it could be due to the older population’s diversity, or it could simply be denial. Whatever it is, when we talk about others, the tone of the conversation shifts. For example, a social research study by Pfizer shows that 62% of the 4.2 million Tweets about aging posted in a 12 month period were negative. It is key to address this issue for people to widely embrace a new view of aging. The question is how?
A few years ago I presented at an “expert consultation” for the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development). During this presentation, I recommended that one way to change views of aging is to enlist role models of all ages and abilities. Role models can dispel myths of aging. They can also demonstrate that people are capable of participating fully in life throughout the life span. By encouraging older adults to recognize their potential and to be active in society, we can bridge the perceived generation gap and reinforce for all what it means to grow old today.
“We should acknowledge the great gift of getting older—fear shouldn’t be our dominant emotion about this change,” says Ted Fishman, author of Shock of Gray. “We should be optimistic about it, but we also need to be willing to do our job as citizens and be smart about it. That means taking better care of our finances—working longer, staying engaged with our families and taking better care of our health.”
Each of us can become a role model and illuminate what it means to age well. Not only for current generations, but for generations to come. So, are you on board?
Colin Milner, CEO
International Council on Active Aging®