In the “youthquake” of the 1960s, America witnessed the early skirmishes of a culture war that’s still with us, together with the dawning of an age of new consciousness. Today, the Boomer generation that once cried “Don’t trust anyone over 30” has members turning 70.
The generation that once challenged the meaning of adulthood now has an opportunity to reshape how America views elderhood as they begin to join its ranks. Will once-activist Boomers succeed at busting up ageism to create a culture that values its elders? Or will they try to deny aging, heeding the call of massive consumerism catering to the cult of youth?
Gerontologist, activist, and author Dr. Bill Thomas is barnstorming the country this year to engage Boomers and others in a new narrative about aging. With an entourage of musicians, storytellers, and speakers, he is traveling to 36 cities in a rock ‘n’ roll style bus to spread the good news that aging can be beautiful. The Age of Disruption Tour includes stops at Pierce College in Puyallup on May 2 and Town Hall Seattle on May 3.
Disrupting old ways of thinking is nothing new for Thomas. In the 1990s, he radically challenged conventional wisdom about nursing homes by bringing in children, plants, animals, and birds for residents to watch and care for—with remarkable results. Through what became The Eden Alternative global non-profit, he showed that any care environment could be transformed to feel like family settings rather than institutions. Later, Dr. Thomas created an alternative to traditional nursing homes called The Green House Project, small homes for up to 10 residents with private rooms and bathrooms.
Now he wants to challenge attitudes about aging—especially among Boomers who once vowed never to get old. In his 2014 book Second Wind: Navigating the Passage to a Slower, Deeper and More Connected Life, Thomas wrote that the Boomers failed in their quest to change the culture. Even though two colorful groups, the hippies and the activists, captured the media’s attention during the Woodstock days, Thomas believes a large group of “squares” always subscribed to existing norms about being an adult. And as Boomers aged and took on jobs, mortgages, and kids, the squares won out, reinforcing a culture that valued efficiency, idolized youth, and disregarded its elders.
“We bought into an achievement-oriented, performance-oriented, outcome-oriented, materialistically-oriented, hyper-caffeinated, hyperactive, vision of adulthood,” says Thomas.
In short, we wound up with an ageist culture, according to Ashton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Aging. With verve and sass, she’s campaigning to eradicate the roots of ageism which begin “when we pretend aging is not going to happen to us.”
She adds, “If we’re lucky, we’ll someday grow old, whether we want to admit it or not!” Ironically, ageism targets not just the elderly, but our future selves. The people who see elders as “the other” will likely someday become “them.”
Applewhite doesn’t mince words about the harm caused by prevailing myths and stereotypes. “The negative messages around aging are what makes getting older in America so much harder than it has to be, especially for women,” she says. “Attitudes towards aging,” she adds, “affect how our minds and bodies function on the cellular level.” Research she cites shows that people with positive attitudes toward aging have a life expectancy averaging 7.5 years longer than others. She also discusses how scientists have found a “happiness curve,” with people reporting that they’re most content near the beginning and toward the end of life.
Applewhite doesn’t deny that as we age we may encounter pain, declining health, or dementia. Yet she adds, “The irrational fear of aging is way, way out of proportion to the actual experience.” That fear is what needs to change.
Thomas would agree. At his events, he’s hoping to influence Boomer attitudes and replace fear with hope and excitement about the future. He places Boomers in three camps when it comes to their approaches to aging:
In the first camp are the “denialists,” who collectively pump billions into “age-defying” products, pretending old age won’t happen to them. “Realists” are in the second camp. They don’t deny aging but hope that between lots of kale, yoga, and active living, they won’t have to deal with it for a while. In the third camp are “enthusiasts,” people like Thomas and Applewhite, who actively embrace aging, acknowledging its beauty and possibilities, as well as its potential challenges.
Thomas believes Boomers can awaken their activist roots and reinvent elderhood. “They have one more chance to get it right.”
For those who want to become enthusiasts, he recommends getting to know the elderly and learning what happens as we age. None of us can know in advance what our experience of aging will be. By becoming curious and spending time with those who are older, we can disrupt our preconceptions and develop attitudes about aging that are both informed and appreciative.
Applewhite offers us a phrase, modified from a saying about Mexican matadors:
“The bull looks different when you enter the ring.”
That older woman you see in a wheelchair may be loving her life. As many of us begin to approach the ring ourselves, we’ll be better off if we trust that there’s something great on the horizon.
Sally Fox is a coach, consultant, speaker, and podcaster who is helping individuals and organizations to bring their best stories forward. She lives and ages on Vashon Island. Read about her work and find her blog at engagingpresence.com. Listen to her podcast interviews with Dr. Bill Thomas and Ashton Applewhite at 3rdActMagazine.com.