Aging Well in an Unwelcoming Environment
by Dr. Dale V. Atkins, October 2008
Age is a concept that is neither constant nor universal. Different cultures view aging in different ways. In some cultures older people are revered, respected and sought out for their wisdom. In the USA we are becoming more conscious of what it takes to age well, but that does not mean that as a society we value our older citizens.
There are too many people who believe that aging is about diminishment and decline. Consequently, older people feel marginalized or ignored. While they are still productive, vital, interested, concerned, they are not "tapped" for their talents and wisdom by a younger population that not only values youth but devalues or ignores the experience and viewpoints that accompany age.
Aging is about change and change involves loss. Connected with loss is stress. Some of us do better with change than others and there are ways to reduce the stress of change. The "golden years" are extending by decades and many of us, because we are conscious of taking care of ourselves nutritionally, physically, mentally, spiritually, financially, emotionally, and mentally, have made choices to become more involved with life. We are active, contributing, taking risks, trying new things. We are learning, creating, developing or revisiting our passions, contributing and giving back to our communities, communing with nature, traveling to places we had only read about, meeting new people, enjoying the emotional depth of relationships, and being open to intergenerational friendships.
In earlier times generations lived either together or close by one another. Multiple generations and extended family members knew what was going on in each other's lives, and they talked with and listened to each other. Because of today's family members living far from each other or just having "busy, independent lives" we need to make an effort to stay interested, involved and connected.
A common recommendation for aging well is to develop friendships with people from different age groups. Mix it up! Learn about different perspectives, music, attitudes. Keep an open mind for dialogue. In theory that is great. In practice, many older adults (whether they are the "young old" or the "old old") are open to this suggestion and value the idea of these intergenerational opportunities to broaden their relationships.
The problem is often NOT with them. Younger people are often resistant to developing relationships with older folks. As soon as they find out their numerical age they put them into a "category" and make assumptions about that category that reeks of stereotype. Some younger people believe that older people are unhappy. In fact, research shows that it is older people who are happier and have a more positive, optimistic attitude. Some younger people do not have the patience needed and are less interested in learning from and sharing with a person whose years of experience and wisdom can be beneficial to them. There appears to be "no time" to savor the relationship or the interaction. Because of some difficulties with hearing or memory retrieval or adapting to a slower pace, there is a blanket dismissal that there is nothing worth savoring and the opportunity for a meaningful relationship remains untouched. Nobody wants to be in a place where he or she is not wanted or valued.
Take the opportunity to re-examine and re-evaluate our attitude that does everything possible to extend life spans and make it possible to live healthfully longer and precious little to encourage truly respectful intergenerational exchange. So, to save your sanity, "reach across the age barrier aisle" for a broadening experience.
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