This week’s column is a continuation of an interview I did for the radio show, “Living to 100 Club,” designed to help older adults live their best life and “turn aging on its head.” Here are some of my responses to the last several questions asked by geropsychologist and author, Joseph Casciani.
Joseph Casciani: Many older adults don’t see aging as a positive experience. Rather, they see aging as a stage of decline, despair and helplessness. What would you say to such an individual?
Helen Dennis: I would aim for a course correction and begin with some basics of Aging 101. We know that aging is a declining process; that’s the bad news. We lose muscle mass and lung capacity; the immune system does not work as well; it takes longer to recover from stress; digestion time changes; and skin loses some of its elasticity. Here is the good news and what I would emphasize. We can slow down this process by our lifestyle choices. In a study of fraternal and identical twins, researchers found that 70 percent of physical aging is due to lifestyle; the remaining 30 percent is due to genetics.
Rather than feeling like a victim, we can seize the opportunity to age well by embracing and implementing exercise, good nutrition, having a sense of purpose and more. And purpose is important. It has been well-documented that having a sense of purpose leads to better cognitive functioning, greater physical agility and increased longevity.
Furthermore, some things get better with age. We have the potential to deepen relationships, improve physical strength and increase what is called crystallized intelligence. This type of intelligence refers to everything we have learned in our lifetime, our skills, abilities and knowledge that lead to wisdom. My message to that person is that we have the power to influence how we age. Of course, a little luck always helps.
J.C.: What needs to be done to continue the shift towards positive aging?
H.D.: Here are just a few suggestions.
Call out ageism: We need to first examine our own attitudes and beliefs. The noted late geriatrician Dr. Robert N. Butler wrote in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Why Survive? Being Old I America,” “There is a deep and profound prejudice against the elderly which is found to some degree in each of us.” The World Health Organization published an Ageing Attitude Quiz. Check it out at https://www.who.int/ageing/features/attitudes-quiz/en/. Check communications, policies and practices: We need to be aware of ageism in social media, newspapers, newsletters and advertisements. We need to be watchful for Hollywood images and messages and vigilant for government policies and medical practices as well as company systems. Being watchful is not enough. We need to suggest alternative language and images and policy modifications. See https://www.frameworksinstitute.org/issues/aging/. We also need to ensure that older adults are included in drug trials. And when it comes to older workers, we need to perceive them as important resources and develop successful strategies to engage them.
Promote multigenerational connections: If we had more multigenerational relationships, associations, partnerships and just exposure, ageism likely would disappear. Examples of nonprofit organizations that build these relationships are Gen to Gen, Generations United and Big Brothers and Big Sisters.
Eliminate the “greedy geezer” belief. Finally, we need to squelch the notion that older adults are a drain on society, depriving others of resources. The reality is that those age 50 and older contribute over seven trillion dollars to annual U.S. economic activity according to AARP.
J.C.: Any final recommendations?
H.D.: I guess the first is self-responsibility and to act on the knowledge we have about aging. We need to take care of ourselves and adopt a healthy lifestyle. Second, we need to embrace technology, regardless of our age. During this pandemic, technology, and in particular Zoom, has been a lifesaver in keeping us connected. These personal connections are vital to our well-being. We might need to ask an eight-year-old for tech support. Third, we need to have a sense of purpose, of feeling valued. And finally, we need to explore ways to give back that benefit our own well-being and also contribute to making our society a better place for all. All of these take initiative, intention and perseverance. The payoff is big — increasing our chance of living a life that is as long as possible, as healthy as possible and having a reason to get up every morning.