A friend told me recently that her granddaughter’s fifth-grade class had a whole section devoted to puberty last year, learning about the changes they could expect as they become teenagers, only a few years away.
We looked at each other and exclaimed, “I wish someone had taught us about aging!”
Living to 100 is no easy feat today, but almost. People over 85 are the fastest-growing population segment in America, and many of us are living well into our 90s and, yes, 100s. You might die young, but the chances of dying old, even very old, are much greater. And aging is highly complex—more complex than even puberty.
Yet almost to a person, no one prepares for their old age. No one thinks about preparing. Aging is a mystery and a curse and a bore. And so we deny it.
For the last 70 years, our nation has been obsessed by its young, especially the 75 million baby boomers who were the largest generation in U.S. history until millennials took that role this year. Nobody was ever going to get old.
As the first of the boomers speed into their 70s like millions of runaway Mack trucks, we’re still stuck in a youth rut. Never mind that nobody teaches us about aging. The reality is worse: As a nation, we don’t respect or honor aging, despite the lip service we pay. We all want to live a long time—but no one wants to grow old. Old is not cute or powerful. Old is not svelte and zesty. Instead we see it—in ads, movies, TV—as pathetic, doddering, and confused. Needy. Or the exact opposite—and this stereotype didn’t even exist 15 years ago—smiley-faced, wrinkle free, and ecstatic.
Little wonder we hate going there…
So what would it take to change this paradigm? The anti-aging forces are bent on wiping out our wrinkles, so we have to create our own paths.
The first step is the hardest: facing our aging. Stop being embarrassed about your age or covering up how old you are. Being open about your age is the first clue you’re not ashamed. When we stop being ashamed, we start being strong.
Pay attention to the labels people call you. “Senior” and “senior citizen” are pseudo-honorific names that marketers invented decades ago to attract older buyers without calling them “old.” Does anyone call young people “juniors”? “Senior” is patronizing and insulting, a cover-up for our discomfort that people age. Stop using euphemisms. We’re not getting “seniored,” we’re getting older!
The downside of aging, admittedly, is disability, losing our independence, needing care. So, explore the care resources you may need someday—what they are, their quality and cost, and who pays for them. Taking responsibility for doing this now can be a huge relief—and spares your family the agony of doing it for you in a crisis.
If we’re going to live to a ripe old age, let’s put our aging into perspective. Let’s be proud to grow old. Let’s be strong, smart, and interesting—and take care of ourselves. I call this “aging deliberately.”
We can turn the stereotype of aging on its head, even if no one offers a class on how to do it.
Liz Taylor, an eldercare specialist for 40 years, lives in the San Juan Islands, where she is semi-retired. She wrote a popular column on aging for The Seattle Times for 14 years, and has consulted with thousands of older adults and their families. Liz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.