To celebrate May being Older Americans Month as observed by the Administration on Aging (AoA), we have conducted a series of interviews we will be posting on this blog throughout the month. The theme issued by the AoA for this year is “Age Strong! Live Long!” to recognize the diversity and vitality of today’s older Americans who span three generations. The interviews are with several outstanding people who share how they live this year’s theme each and every day, and give us insight into the profound contribution and influence of older Americans today.
When Older Americans Month was established in 1963, only 17 million living Americans had reached their 65th birthdays. Today, centenarians are the fastest growing demographic cohort, so what does it mean to be an ‘older American’ today? Has its meaning and role changed? When President Kennedy proclaimed Older Americans Month it was to “acknowledge the contribution of past and current older persons in our country, in particular those who defended our country”. Of course it’s vital to honor both the young and the old who served in the armed forces in any conflict involving America. As the years passed other titles expanded the themes. “Working for Stronger and Healthy Communities”, “Caregiving: Compassion in Action”, “Older Americans and the Family” and this year’s title, “Age Strong, Live Long”.
The question you asked me to address is whether the meaning and role of older persons has changed. All surveys and statistics show that as we age we are taking advantage of sensible diet, regular exercise, better personal health care and length of life is increasing for a good number of persons in their later years. Having a greatly increased number of persons in their 80’s, 90’s, and even reaching the age of 100 has and will continue to expand roles of involvement in the world of activity and social involvement. Additionally, the number of dependent and frail has expanded. The need is already more evident in the numbers requiring care. Services are relatively scarce and often expensive putting family members in the role of primary caregivers.
The fast growing number of Americans in their 60’s and 70’s has drastically changed. Many in this population once viewed that time of their lives as an opportunity to establish a creative and relaxed retirement. Now by necessity a large number are having to go back to work for needed income. Getting a Medicare card at age 65 once meant becoming part of the elders. Many now think of those years as an extension of mid-life. What I’ve briefly outlined is a changed role and altered personal definition of aging. Every birthday past 50 offers emerging roles still undefined.
Is it problematic to use words such as ‘older’, ‘elder’ or ‘senior’ in acknowledging and celebrating the eldest of our population since many reject or do not identify themselves with terms? What are better terms to use, or is it a matter of taking back these terms to connote more positive meanings? Through the past decades I’ve noted several attempts to deal with those established words that many see as having stereotyped and negative connotations. As I recall they were clever word combinations that had no real meaning and were quickly forgotten. I can’t even recall many of them but “re-wire” and “re–tire” come to mind. I don’t believe that creating new names that aim to take the aging out of aging will catch on. It seems wiser to leave the language alone and embrace our aging in positive ways. This will hopefully change how we use such words and alter the negative response to words such as older, senior, elder and the whole idea of our aging.
Are there unique challenges being faced today by those transitioning into mid-life and the years thereafter than those experienced by previous generations? Every generation has been challenged to deal with changes—new inventions, changes in everything from modes of transportation to innovations in technology to fashions and food. Practically everything has and is changing. However, the pace of change seems to have doubled or even more. A friend of mine joked that by the time he got home with his new computer, plugged it in and got it set up that it already had become an old model! I think that because of the pace of such changes that there are fast growing gaps in communication and understanding between the very young and their grandparents. Many of us older persons worry about this as the modes of communication between generations often seem to have lost a vocabulary.
As we age many of the established support systems are changing. Talk of extending the age of Medicare entitlement and getting Social Security payment has many approaching their mid–60’s changing their thinking and their plans. The security of investments and well thought through plans for the later years have been compromised for many by the economic stress of the world economy. I sense the palpable fear of many as we age with uncertainly about thing and services we once counted upon.
Yet, I still like to believe that when one door closes another can open. Many of my colleagues and friends talk of planning their later years in a closer community, sharing living spaces, relying on neighbors and friends and building interdependent communities that once was the strength of our country and our individual lifestyles. In anticipation of a different world many high schools have instituted a program or community service not only to provided help needed but to provide an experience of integrated self into society in ways not explored by some previous generations that have learned attitudes of “me” built into their perspectives.
How are older Americans redefining their life evolution from previous generations? It seems the concept of retirement is changing. How can older Americans further enrich their lives at that life stage? What new opportunities does this life stage bring that can be embraced? When you ask about “older Americans” the inquiry lumps together a span of persons in their 50’s through 90’s and beyond. For each person, at different stages of life, is the responsibility and the necessity for caring for one’s self by maintaining a healthy diet, watching ones weight, establishing a routine of moderate exercise, and exploring meaningful and purposeful work and other activities as one moves into different stages of life.
If, as a person ages they actually do redefine their life evolution with a realistic perception I’d say ‘bravo’! There are people in their 70’s and 80’s seeking employment. Some in their 40’s and 50’s are already into their 3rd or 4th career while others are creating small businesses and changing their style of living. Predicting patterns of aging, planning, retirement savings, and predicable situations are often not possible in the chaos of our economy. Survival and a new frugality are factors shaping day to day living as well as later life living situations. In contemporary American culture many define their aging in terms of what I’ve labeled “youthing” describing the belief that staying young is the successful way to age. Surveys indicate a dramatic increase in cosmetic surgery, extreme diets, youthful clothing as well as subtle ways of outwitting, denying, avoiding, and camouflaging aging. Advertising and marketing appeals all too often validates the anti–aging message.
The theme for 2010 is ‘Age Strong! Live Long!’. Will you share with us you advice to living the theme, or share some of the best advice you have heard among all the people you have interviewed in your career so far? I imagine that most people might react to such a title as a challenge to stay physically fit and promote a long and healthy life. I’d like to offer a different perspective. How about seeing your aging process as an invitation to fully embrace whatever chronological age you’ve arrived at along with what it may offer. In my almost 40 years of interviewing people on their personal experience and philosophy of aging I find that sharing their words in my writing and the speeches I give can offer a positive acceptance of whatever age we’re at. There are changes and challenges that come into each of our individual lives that offer the opportunity not just to grow old but to grow whole. To illustrate what I mean, here are a few sentences from conversations I’ve had with people of all ages.
“The task of the midlife transition is to make peace with the past and prepare for the future….midlife brings with it an invitation to accept ourselves as we truly are.” “In the second half of life, our old compasses no longer work. The magnetic fields alter. The new compass that we need cannot be held in our hand, only in our hearts. We read it not with our mind alone, but with our soul. Now we yearn for wholeness.” “I want to tell people approaching and perhaps fearing age that it is a time of discovery. If they say, ‘Of what?’ I can only answer, ‘We must each find out for ourselves, otherwise it won’t be a discovery’. I want to say….if at the end of your life you have only yourself, it is much. Look, and you will find.”
The aging process is woven into human destiny. I believe the theme of the 2010 Older American’s Month, “Age Strong! Live Long!” not only offers a challenge to our physical wellness but demands that personally and as a society we contemplate who we are now, that we’re not who we were. It will open the door to new growth and wisdom.
“Age has given me what I was looking for my entire life; it gave me, me!”