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Aging Today

A New Frontier


Elder woman enjoying an invigorating hike outdoors.
Image designed by © luciano on AdobeStock

Aging today is not the same as it was for our grandparents. The world and everyday life have undergone countless changes. As a result, entering old age today is like stepping into uncharted territory; our options and opportunities have expanded dramatically. A key difference for being old today is we live much longer than in the past. When I was born in 1934, life expectancy in the US was 65; today it is 78. And now that I am 89, I can expect to live 5.26 more years. There is no map for how to use the extra years we have, no handy guidebook to point the way.


Perhaps one of the most significant difference in aging today compared to the past is advancements in modern medicine. With access to Medicare and Medicaid, there are various powerful drugs and treatments available to help us manage illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. We get new knees, hips, shoulders, and hearing aids that enable us to stay active and involved in our communities. Additionally, we can use rehabilitation, physical therapy, and occupational therapy options to aid in regaining or maintaining our physical abilities.


Lively elder woman enjoying nurse's attention & care in her independent living home.
Image designed by © Ilzer/peopleimages.com on AdobeStock

Despite the additional years we can expect and the blessings of modern medicine, almost everyone dreads growing old. Nobody says: I’m excited to be 90! When I asked a group of readers to describe old people, the most frequent responses included weak, slow, forgetful, boring, and grouchy. The common belief is that aging is all about decline.


Surprising New Research on Being Old

While writing my book EightySomethings, I interviewed 128 elderly people from different parts of the United States. My purpose was to understand what it means to be old in today’s world. To my surprise, I found that most of them were happy; and not just happy, but unexpectedly happy. Studies by social scientists like Laura Carstensen of Stanford University and others have consistently found that individuals in their 80s are happier than those in their 70s, and those in their 70s are happier than those in their 60s.


In addition to learning about the happiness of older folks, another major finding was that being old is also about continuing growth and development. They continue learning about computers, birds, genealogy, new languages, and hundreds of other subjects. They travel, play musical instruments, and are volunteers. They write books and create art of all kinds. Most people in their 70s and 80s lead active, pain-free, and meaningful lives.


Elder man holding power drill, excited to get started on a new woodworking project.
Image designed by © Jacob Lund on AdobeStock

I imagine that you, dear reader, at this point, are thinking: but Katharine, you are forgetting about all the losses. And it is true, of course, that we experience many losses as we age. My takeaway here is that, based on current research and personal experiences, sometimes our pessimistic expectations of being old may not align with reality. Our natural negativity bias is partly responsible for our gloomy view of aging. It is time to reclaim aging and celebrate being old, to be proud of our age rather than ashamed of it.


I want us over-seventies to take more time to notice, observe, and pay careful attention to our lives as we live them. In general, I have noticed we tend to focus more on our physical discomforts rather than the pleasures and joys we encounter.


Flip the Script of Negative Self-Talk

Let’s take me and my life a few days ago, for example. It was a Monday. During the day, I was rarely without the sense of missing my partner, Peter, who died four months ago. I am still mourning. My apartment feels quiet and empty. That is my biggest challenge, but there are others. At breakfast, I suddenly realized, Oops, I’ve scheduled two meetings for 3 o’clock today. Dumb, Katharine, you are clearly losing it. I was quickly in a frantic rush to reschedule one of the meetings. Thankfully, I was able to. Whew, a mini-crisis averted. During my exercise class, I observed the strange pain in the palm of my right hand was persisting. It couldn’t be a broken bone, could it? Then, at lunch, I noticed I had left my sweater at the exercise class. How stupid to be forgetful twice in the day before noon.


But this same day was also full of small joys. It began with the satisfaction of leisurely reading my newspaper and completing the mini-crossword puzzle. Believe it or not, I thoroughly enjoyed my exercise class with weights. And lunch was followed by the luxury of my daily nap. In the afternoon, I had an hour of computer support from a college student volunteer who helped me organize my passwords. Compiling my passwords is huge for me because I have always kept my passwords on little pieces of paper in several random notebooks and taped to a closet door. I could rarely find the one I needed. Go Katharine! Later that evening, I had dinner with two couples and my longtime friends. I was delighted to have time to unwind, exchange stories, and appreciate each other’s company. It was a day where so much went well.


Elder woman sitting on a patio bench with her dog while reflecting on her day surrounded by plants.
Image designed by © Halfpoint on AdobeStock

Instead of engaging in negative self-talk, I recommend we all take time to reflect on the contentments of the day and savor all the things that went well. Then, I recommend asking yourself: Why did the things that went well happen how they did? For me, despite all that went wrong on that Monday, the joy of finally getting my passwords organized happened because I signed up to get a student tutor. And the lovely dinner happened because I invited my friends over. Once again, I understand I am the creator of much of my happiness and well-being. And that is true for all of us.


I am new to the practice of noticing what is working. Each day, I try to focus on two or three things that I usually take for granted but are working well. On Monday, I observed that none of my teeth were hurting, and I was walking comfortably.


Elder couple enjoying an outdoor kayaking adventure together.
Image designed by © CandyRetriever on AdobeStock

Re-imagining Aging Today

Reinventing how we perceive being old while we live the reality is a project that takes time and effort. We can’t delegate it to anyone else. It is incumbent on each of us to expand our sense of what is possible, learn what works for us, and relish all that is pleasurable. 


I’m curious to learn: What have you discovered about being old? How would you like to re-imagine aging for yourself and others?


 


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Thank you for your wonderful blog. Helps me navigate my 70's.

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Thanks Toni. It's great to know that my thoughts are helpful.

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I enjoy reading your blog so much. It just fills me with gratitude for life. Thank you and keep on sharing!

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Thanks, Judy. Your Zumba class is part of what keeps me flourishing.

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