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Celebrate, Understand the Journey of Aging

Posted on December 11, 2017 | by Kathy Silverberg
Celebrate, Understand the Journey of Aging

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by the Herald-Tribune on November 17, 2017. Kathy Silverberg is a former publisher of the Herald-Tribune’s southern editions.

It was Bette Davis, and probably a lot of other people, who said, “Old age is no place for sissies.”
Possibly true, but two things come to mind. First, reaching “old” age is not what it used to be, and second, who wants to be a sissy anyway? As more and more Americans live into what was once considered old age, the experience becomes as varied as individuals themselves.

Consider that Michelangelo was 88 when he drew up the architectural plans for the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Rome. Much more recently, Katherine Pelton, a retired school teacher and master swimmer, set the 200-meter butterfly record of 3 minutes and 1.14 seconds when she was 86 years old, breaking the men’s world record in that age group by 20 seconds.

Native Kansan Nola Ochs was 95 when she received her bachelor’s degree from Fort Hays State University, but she didn’t stop there. In 2010, three years later, she earned her master’s degree and went on to serve as a teaching assistant in history.

As improved health care and advancements in medical science account for continued increases in longevity, the face of older adulthood is changing by the year. People working into their 70s has become common, and many older adults are leading active lives much beyond that.

Yet still, the stigma of aging continues to haunt this growing segment of the population. For the greater Sarasota community, where the median age is 45 as compared to the national figure of 37.8, this is an important issue that threatens the wellbeing of many residents.

Thus, confronting the stereotypes was the subject of a day-long gathering last week presented by the Friendship Centers, Age-Friendly Sarasota, Jewish Family and Community Services and the Ringling College Lifelong Learning Academy. Speakers focused on the perceptions of older adults held by a large part of the population as well as and what can be done to change those views.

Noted geriatrician and author Dr. Bill Thomas told his audience that there are two stages of life: maturation and aging. Up until about the age of 28, people are maturing, and after that, they are aging. Before that, minds and bodies are growing but after that, he said, the real journey of life begins, one during which the individual becomes his or her true self, and the story of life is written.

He explained, “Aging is the name we give to growth when we are no longer young.” But sadly, ageism is the result of a skewed concept of what it means to get older.

The speakers last week, who also included AARP’s senior vice president Barbara Shipley, and Liz Redford, a social psychologist at the University of Florida who is studying hidden prejudices, emphasized the importance of seeing though stereotypes and of valuing the liberating quality of life’s later years.

Thomas urged his speakers to push back on disparaging language used to describe older people and Redford suggested that implicit bias, that which is ingrained in all of us, cannot be overcome without a concerted effort to dispel inaccurate stereotypes.

Not long ago, I read an essay written by Lerita Coleman Brown that was included in the book, “Living into God’s Dream: Dismantling Racism in America.” Her premise that people base their thoughts and actions on misperceptions of “the others” — those who are different — parallels the issues of ageism. In simple terms, Brown wrote, “People see what they believe.”

Though ageism can seem more subtle than racism or sexism, all bigotry stems from what Brown calls an “unconscious desire to attack what is different, what might appear frightening.” At the conference last week, Thomas touched on what he called the “terror hypothesis,” and explained that reminders of death are frightening and thus the appearance of aging has been stigmatized.

The good news is that intentionality can change the equation. When people recognize their biases, when they come together in honest conversation, a new level of understanding can result. Likewise, the best revenge for those in a group that has been subjected to bigotry lies in celebrating their unique qualities and honoring their own journeys.

For those lucky enough to have reached what many consider old age, there is more opportunity today for people to choose how they live, to become their true selves, the ones that emerge through the decades.

With renewed self-awareness and an appreciation for the commonalities that stretch across people of all ages, races and cultures, getting older can be seen as just a part of the journey, one to be celebrated all along the way.

 


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