Changing the ways we think about aging
What does it mean to age “successfully”?
Does it mean remaining physically fit and bustling about the gym into our 90s? Being able to volunteer to help others around you? Does it mean you’re retired and surrounded by grandkids? Or simply that you’re happy to still be alive?
These are the kinds of questions that concern Tracey Bobrowitz Gendron, associate professor and chair of VCU’s Department of Gerontology.
The definition of aging well, Gendron suggests, can be many things for many people. “As we age, we become less like each other and more like ourselves,” she said.
Ageism is all around us
Unfortunately, the study of aging, which is what gerontologists do, is sometimes confounded by the extensive presence of ageism: discrimination against, or stereotyping of, individuals or groups based on their age.
Gendron, who publishes articles about ageism in academic journals and has spoken out against age bias in the New York Times and U.S. News and World Report, likes to use the hashtag #disruptageism in her social media posts and on T-shirts.
She wants society to acknowledge the “deeply embedded, normalized and invisible ageism that is within us all,” she said.
Once we are aware of ageism, perhaps we can change our point of view — starting with the negative connotations we give terms like “senior,” “old” and “aging.”
“It’s time that we let go of the stigma surrounding the words ‘aging’ and ‘old’ and embrace their actual meaning,” Gendron said. After all, “aging” means change, growth and evolution. And “old” simply means having lived for a long time.
“To be ‘old’ implies accumulated experience and knowledge,” she said. “Using these definitions, ‘aging’ and ‘old’ become valued and sought-after stages of life.”
Study of aging is recent
The study of aging began with the best of intentions. Ironically, some of its efforts may have given ageism a boost.
One of the first studies of healthy aging was led by Dr. Robert Neal Butler at the National Institute of Mental Health in 1969, and resulted in his book Human Aging. There he also coined and defined the term “ageism.”
In 1975, Butler was the founding director of the National Institute on Aging, and in 1982 he founded the first department of geriatrics at a medical school in the U.S.
These were all developments that could be expected to improve our knowledge of the aging process and help us understand ourselves better.
Then, in 1987, researchers John Rowe and Robert L. Kahn coined the term “successful aging” to differentiate between older people with diseases or disabilities and older people without them.
Successful aging was initially defined by three criteria, Gendron explained: Low probability of disease and disease-related disability; high cognitive and physical functional capacity; and active engagement with life. This is known as the MacArthur model of successful aging.
Rowe and Kahn’s research and 1998 book pointed out that many older adults were active, healthy and engaged members of society; therefore, research could focus on how to help them as they moved into elderhood.
“In theory, this was intended to push back against ageism,” Gendron said. “Unfortunately, in practice, it contributed to ageism by creating a chasm between aging as success (i.e., independence) and aging as failure (i.e., dependence).”
Age as something to fight
Enter the anti-aging industry, which capitalized on the concept of successful aging by convincing us to try to reverse aging and its effects. As a result, getting older isn’t easy in what Gendron calls our “culture of manipulation.”
“It’s very likely that your current understanding of successful aging is a byproduct of the manipulation perpetrated by the anti-aging industries, who want you to believe that you need their products or services to remain ‘young,’” Gendron said.
These industries try to sell us a narrow picture of aging, one that’s “unattainable — because aging is unavoidable, and becoming old is inevitable,” she said.
“We seem to accept that successful aging requires us to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps — that how we age is up to us, within our individual control,” she said.
The message they send is: “If we simply eat right, exercise, meditate, manage stress, have good genes, make the right financial decisions and investments, keep the house clean and take out the garbage every Tuesday morning, we will succeed at this aging thing.”
Avoiding disease and disability is not only unrealistic, Gendron pointed out; it also doesn’t help us prepare for elderhood — a stage of life like other developmental stages such as infancy, childhood and adulthood.
All life stages are “marked by evolving tasks and milestones of growth and expansion,” Gendron said. However, unlike earlier life stages, aging markers are more unique, idiosyncratic and variable.
What do older adults say?
To really understand what it means to age successfully, Gendron suggests we go to the source: elders themselves.
Fortunately, as boomers age, many more research papers and books are being published by and for older adults.
Read a few essays or books by older writers, Gendron suggested, and you’ll find that age can bring the capacity to accept limitations; to form loving relationships with ourselves and others; and to experience joy, contentment — and success.
At one extreme, you have Joseph Goodenough, 97, who became the oldest person to be awarded the Nobel Prize last year for some of the basic research that led to the invention of lithium-ion batteries.
While he did that research in England more than 40 years ago, he is still teaching and engaged in research at the University of Texas at Austin.
“Live to 97, and you can do anything,” Goodenough told a newspaper.
The oldest Nobel Prize winner in Literature, Doris Lessing, was 88 when it was awarded. She told an interviewer that the slower pace of her later years granted her more time to write.
“I don’t have much of a social life, and I’ve been very circumscribed by other circumstances in my life which keep me writing,” she said.
At age 95, the novelist Doris Grumbach wrote in an essay, “due to so little physical activity and fewer social goings-on, I have begun to inhabit the static house of my head.
“To my surprise I find it a somewhat well-furnished abode, occupied with what I remember, have heard recently, and observed.”
In the end, Gendron said, there are many ways to be old — and to successfully transition to older adulthood.
“Be bold, be old and embrace your own aging,” Gendron said. “Only you get to decide what your elderhood looks like.”