Todayfs Seniors: The New Face of Aging
By Bruce Darling
It is vitally important to bring into clear focus the new face of aging that is all around us but not sufficiently recognized and understood. The average life expectancy and the percentage of old persons is going to continue to increase in the coming decades. Some have termed this the coming gage wave,h when todayfs baby boomers begin reaching their mid-fifties.@ This new generation of older persons is unlike any previous generation for so many of these people will live into their eighties and beyond. And these older citizens are much more healthy, economically secure, educated, experienced, politically savvy, and eager to continue to participate in society and life. This generation will make demands and have expectations for a quality second half of life. The longevity revolution is making an impact and it is on a worldwide scale. But it has also produced what Ken Dychtwald terms an gElder Wastelandh for our societies have not yet figured out what to do with the healthier, more educated and richly experienced elder generation. Nor do we even have a name for it. Today we are wasting a tremendous natural resource because of mindless stereotypical thinking and the outdated social policies that accompany it-- ageism, forced premature retirement, sexual discrimination, mental and physical disability discrimination, racial discrimination
Clearly the way a society treats its older citizens reflects that societyfs humaneness. Furthermore, the way a society thinks about its elders plays a central role in determining official social welfare policy with respect to the elderly. Unfortunately, once a policy, no matter how evaluated, is established it is very difficult to amend, revise, or abolish. In other words, policies frequently remain in effect after their initial purpose is no longer being best served. Social welfare policies based on incorrect or partial understanding and outdated premises hence can do much damage if mindlessly carried on. One such example—forced retirement at an age when one still wants to contribute. Otto von Bismark set 65 as the age of retirement in preparation for Germanyfs pension plan, this when the average age when people died was 45. Certainly with todayfs different circumstances this should be reconsidered. Such out of date policies persist due to outdated mindless negative stereotypes and images of aging and the aged—aging as decline, unproductiveness, sickness, disability, frailty, dementia; the aged as helpless, weak, senile, social parasites, financial burdens. If this is all there is to aging, it certainly is depressing. Such thinking, which Langer refers to as gnegative premature cognitive commitments,h leads to unhealthy images of aging, both for society and for the elderly themselves. And often they become self-fulfilling. These stereotypes must be overturned for these characterizations are, as a whole, inaccurate and, indeed, harmful. gOld age and poor health continue to be confused.h@ Indeed, the equation of aging with these various negative attributes is shown by recent research to be wrong. The power of these metaphors and images of aging, though, is such that it continues to reinforce the very conditions that we must overcome.@ We need better metaphors and images that accurately present the rich and meaningful life ahead for those reaching what we may term the second half of life. The titles of recent publications and web sites in the field of aging and health indicate the recognition of the true state of getting older in todayfs world and the importance of conveying this with affirmative metaphors and images: Healthy Aging, Active Aging, Productive Aging, Vital Aging, Successful Aging, Creative Aging.@ And, as we shall see, the arts are playing an important role in redefining our societyhs image of older people.
This affirmation of growing old is spreading through the media as well. The photographs of the people on the covers of AARPfs bi-monthly magazine Modern Maturity, as well as those on their brand new publication My Generation, offering material that appeals more to the active and usually not yet retired 50-55 year old boomer membership. The stories and advertisements inside also present lively photos of this new face of aging. In Japan, too, magazines such as Katei Gaho and Serai also emphasize the opportunites available to vital older people. News magazines and newspapers carry stories relating the accomplishments of members of this older generation; TV specials (such as the PBS documentary gStealing Timeh) also focus on this remarkable aging phenomenon. A few full-length films also depict the vitality, challenges and rewards of the older generation: To live (Ikiru), Driving Miss Daisy, The Straight Story.@ And increasingly we see proof of the vitality of this new aging generation by looking around us at our friends and acquaintances, observing their accomplishments, listening to their stories.
The second half of life is being viewed increasingly as a more vibrant, meaningful, rich, and longer period. Those entering the second half of life seek new challenges, take new risks, make new friends, discover unknown places.@ For such positive people life continues to be a wonderful opportunity for exploration, curiosity, rebirth, rejuvenation, sharing, and yes review.@ Sadler, the author of The Third Age, quotes his 80 year old mentorfs enlightening comments.@ gYou donft grow old. You get old when you stop growing.h@@ This coming of age generation will continue to increase in both numbers and percentages of total population through their 60s, 70s, 80s and beyond.@ And we will look at this growing older in new ways that will acknowledge its affirmative tenor.@ We have to rethink and redefine aging. Indeed, traditional ideas about the stages of life now have to be reconsidered. For example, surveys indicate that many people in their 60s and 70s now consider themselves to be@ middle aged rather than elderly. Other typical stages of life also reflect a similar shift and extension. On the other hand, the process of growing old may not be viewed as a separate stage, or even as the final stage, of a glinearh development of life but as continuum in a personfs growth.@ Furthermore, perhaps we will begin to view life as cyclical, with education, work and leisure repeatedly interspersed throughout the lifespan.@ This means a revamping of education programs to allow participation by all ages.
This new aging generation, moreover, is not going quietly home and rest on its accomplishments. The members of this generation want to make a contribution to society, want to play a useful role. By so doing they enhance their own sense of life satisfaction and being.@ Society, far from viewing these people as a burden, as useless, will depend upon them as an essential productive component of a new social order, as a most valuable natural resource, a natural resource that must not be wasted. Yet in Japan, as elsewhere, society is suffering great losses because outdated social, political, business, educational policies mindlessly continued are doing just this. How much richer society would be if groups now excluded from full participation (and hence from making full contributions) were to be encouraged wholeheartedly to contribute— immigrants and other foreigners, those labeled disabled, women, retirees, and of course the older generation as well.
Senior citizens should be recognized as sources of experience and wisdom, as stores of knowledge, as exemplars of living history, indeed as positive role models not only for younger people but those who are moving into their 50s. The positive contributions they are making to society should be widely recognized and deeply appreciated.@ Some western writers on aging cite the traditional Confucian attitudes of honoring the elderly as a possible model for their own approaches to the new rapidly aging social order. It seems to me that the modern Far East might also reexamine this traditional attitude towards the elderly for one sometimes wonders where this tradition went with the breakdown of the traditional family, the move from the countryside to the city, the more restricted living conditions, the new patterns of work.
The current coming gage waveh generation, unlike previous generations, is being taught how to grow old better and it is paying attention.@ The positive images of aging all around us, as well as the people around us aging vitally, show us what is possible. But we must observe carefully, and pay attention to the latest research and discoveries in aging and health.@ Self-empowerment is a large factor in the equation. Making onefs own choices. Taking charge of onefs health care and gself careh(diet, exercise, etc) is crucial; managing onefs finances is also important; seeing to onefs safety plays a role as well. One makes decisions, one makes choices as best one can.@ Once satisfied with these, one turns to self-fulfilling (self-actualization) activities that, in turn, bring vital and fulfilling growth. Langerfs study in mindfulness and Csikszentmihalyifs research on flow show that mindful reflection and judicious risk taking (the premise for risk taking is choice!) are two essential elements of vital creative aging.
Onefs sense of life satisfaction, then, is greatly determined by onefs personal feelings of happiness with onefs present situation.@ Quality of Life is such a difficult concept to define and measure because in addition to including objective living conditions of onefs environment, it also concerns onefs personal and subjective happiness or satisfaction. And it is a higher quality of life that is being demanded by the new aging generation.@ Older people are telling us what they want and insisting that a variety of choices be available. After all, aging has not a single face but rather has many new faces for aging is a diverse as the people who age and the ways they do this.@ As we have been indicating, today this is ever more successfully, productively, creatively.@ Surely onefs surroundings have an important role to play in all this.@ Meredith Budgefs elaboration on the term gquality of lifeh is most pertinent to the subject of this discussion. gQuality of life means that every person has the right to exercise active control and choice over every aspect of their lives. The environment must foster this.h Gene Cohen agrees. He challenges the United States to gCreate a New Landscape for Aging in the Twenty-first Century.h
gIf we view our aging adults as a national resource of talent and creativity, then the challenge for our society is to cultivate that resource and tap it for the common good. In terms of public policy and in many other ways on the whole, society has not yet risen to a sense of challenge or responsibility to maximize the benefits of this enormous and growing national resource. c.
gDespite the sluggish pace of change in government and public policy, many local communities and the consumer driven marketplace are blazing the trail of change into this new landscape for aging. c@ Residential lifestyle options are blossoming, reflecting a fundamental diversification and expansion underway in the settings where older persons reside. These creative options include innovations in independent living, the rapid growth of very diverse retirement communities, assisted-living facilities, continuing-care retirement communities, and naturally occurring retirement communities in neighborhoods or buildings that simply attract a large number of retirement-age individuals. ch@
@See Ken Dychtwald, gWake-up Call: The 10 Physical, Social, Spiritual, Economic and Political Crises the Boomers Will Face as They Age in the 21st Century,h American Society on Aging Web Site
@Ellen J. Langer, Mindfulness (Cambridge, Mass: Perseus Books, 1989)
3Langer, Mindfulness, p. 92; nor does old age necessarily mean dementia.
4 For example, see John W. Rowe and Robert L. Kahn, Successful Aging@ (New York: Dell Publishing, 1999), Chapter 0ne, gBreaking Down the Myths of Aging,h pp. 11-35.
5See Featherstone and Hepworth, gImages of Aging,h Encyclopedia of Gerontology, Vol. 1; also Gary M. Kenyon, James E. Birren, Johannes J.F. Schoots, eds.,@ Metaphors of Aging in Sciences and the Humanities@ (New York: Springer Publishing Company, 1991)
6Here are some references.
Successful Aging:@John W. Rowe and Robert L. Kahn, Successful Aging
(New York: Dell Publishing, 1998.
Healthy Aging: gHealthy Aging-SUITE101.comh
@Web site:@ http://www.suite101.com/welcome.cfm/healthy_aging
Active Aging: Active Aging Resource Guide
@@@@ @@@@ web site:@@ HYPERLINK http://www.mid-eastaaa.org/guide.html#arts http://www.mid-eastaaa.org/guide.html#arts
Productive Aging: John Alexander Buchanan McLeish)
The Ulyssean Adult : Creativity in the Middle and Later Years
(Toronto: McGraw Hill, 1976)
Vital Aging: gVital Agingh@
web site: www.ncoa.org/)@
Creative Aging:@ Carolyn E. Adams-Price, ed. Creativity@ and Successful
Aging: Theoretical and Empirical@ Approaches ,@ (New York: Spring
Publishing Company, 1998).
7 To live (Ikiru), 1960,@ Dir. Akira Kurosawa, Driving Miss Daisy, 1989. Dir. Bruce Beresford,@ The Straight Story, 1999,@ Dir. David Lynch. Also see, Robert E. Yahnke, gIntergeneration and Regeneration: The Meaning of Old Age in Films and Videos,h pp. 293323, In Thomas R. Cole, Robert Kastenbaum, Ruth E. Ray, editors, Handbook of the Humanities and Aging, Second Edition. New York: Springer Publishing Company, 2000.
8William Sadler, The Third Age: 6 Principles of Growth and Renewal after Forty (Cambridge, Ma: Perseus Books, 2000),@ p. 19.
9 See Ken Dychtwald, gWake-up Call: The 10 Physical, Social, Spiritual, Economic and Political Crises the Boomers Will Face as They Age in the 21st Century,h American Society on Aging Web Site.@ Url: www.asaging.org/am/cia/dychtwald.html
10See Maslowfs definition of the hierarchy of needs:@ survival, maintenance, enhancement;@ Abraham Maslow, Motivation and personality.@ (New York: Harper, 1954); also gMaslowfs Hierarchy of Needs
h Web Page url: @HYPERLINK http://chiron.valdosta.edu/whuitt/col/regsys/maslow.html http://chiron.valdosta.edu/whuitt/col/regsys/maslow.html
(Web Site: Educational Psychology Interactive, Bill Huitt's Home Page );
Also Schwarz & Brent, AAA, p. 111
11See Langer, Mindfulness @and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience@ (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1990).
12Certainly a personfs QOL encompasses physical well-being, social concerns, psychological well-being and spiritual well-being. See Web Site: gNotes on eQuality of Life;fh URL: www.soc.titech.ac.jp/uem/qol-define.html
13Meredith Budge, A Wealth of Experience: A Guide to Activities for Older People, 2nd Edition (Sydney: Maclennan + Petty, 1999), p. 5@
14quoted from G Cohen, with bracketed sections added by author; Gene D. Cohen, The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life@ (New York: Avon Books, 2000), pp. 305-306.