We live in a time where there are more elderly people living longer than ever before. In fact, by 2050 the number of people aged 60 years and older is expected to double, predicted to reach two billion. Yet, remarkably, our attitude towards ageing and the aged has never been more dismissive and destructive than it is in the modern day.
For instance, a study conducted at the University of California found “robust evidence of age discrimination in hiring against older women”. Research conducted in Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom suggests that up to 9 per cent of elderly folk suffer from abject loneliness and social isolation, with more than one-third suffering from occasional loneliness or perceived “invisibility”. As many as 60 per cent of respondents in a World Values Survey believe the elderly are not respected. This ageism can include depicting older people as frail, dependent or out of touch in the media.
When faced with these societal expectations and norms, it can be easy to dread the thought of growing older; to resist the natural process of life and push back against the inevitable consequences of ageing. However, as easy as it may be to succumb to current youth-centric pressures, it is important to understand that a resistance to ageing is not just misguided and futile. It may also be undermining your ability to live a long, healthy life.
According to a recent study conducted by the Yale School of Public Health, harbouring negative beliefs about ageing can be a contributing factor in the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. In other research, the World Health Organisation reported that older people with negative attitudes towards their own ageing live, on average, seven-and-a-half years less than those with a more positive outlook.
For many, the findings of these studies will be unsurprising. There is a growing understanding that our mind has a powerful influence on our health and wellbeing; what we believe to be true can actually trigger physical and physiological changes in the body. For instance, the placebo effect is well known in medical circles and demonstrates the power of the mind to instigate healing through the power of intention and belief.
Our new understanding of the unhealthy consequences of a resistance towards ageing highlights the need for us to examine our inherited beliefs about ageing. It is time, perhaps, to reconnect with a more natural, healthier understanding of the value of growing older.
The fallacies behind the fear
According to experts, the greatest change in attitude towards ageing has occurred in the past two hundred years. In this time, technological and economic factors have changed the fabric of society in significant ways. As our society has changed, particularly in developed nations, so too have the inherent expectations and judgements that are a part of our collective psyche. Over time, these judgements have become unconscious paradigms —undisputed stories that we tell ourselves and others. They sit in the depths of our subconscious and drive fear-based behaviours and attitudes. Some of these paradigms include the following:
Our value is measured by what we do
Individual productivity is the lynchpin of the capitalist economy, and modern society idolises busyness, competitiveness and accumulation. Therefore, we are seen as a burden if we are not contributing to society in a physical or financial way, or showing an eagerness to “get ahead”. This societal paradigm is particularly evident in the workplace, where years of experience can be a valuable asset and yet can be overlooked in favour of youthful vitality. Sadly, this obsession with “doing” ignores the many benefits of stillness, reflection and community sharing. As we grow older, we may lose the ability to be constantly busy and competitive, but we increase our ability to accumulate and disseminate wisdom, provide solid emotional support and set examples of growth and resilience.
Perfection is obtainable and desirable
Over recent centuries, humanity has come to believe that it can control both the environment and the human experience to the smallest degree. This has created an outrageous belief that perfection is possible if all of the elements are controlled correctly. Sadly, research suggests that this demand for perfection is becoming more acute and more prevalent with each passing generation, leaving today’s college students demanding greater levels of perfection (of themselves and others) than any previous cohort. Society’s drive for perfection is not only unhealthy, it is unobtainable and inherently unnatural, too. Vitally, this perspective compels us to overlook the value found within perceived defects and deficiency. As we age, our body, our mind and our outlook may become less aligned with society’s concept of perfection. However, we increasingly reflect the beauty and strength of nature — the incredible ability to adapt, to grow and to endure.
People are like machines; we wear out over time
The dawn of the industrial age signalled a change in mindset for humanity; it became popular to consider the universe in its entirety (the cosmos, nature, humans) in machine-like terms. Hence, it was long considered that our bodies were biological machines that would eventually wear out and that our brains were wired in a set pattern, and could not be reprogrammed.
This mechanical view of life is perhaps most apparent in the oft-repeated myth that humans have a limited number of heartbeats, but it can also influence our perspective of life, health and ageing in more subtle ways. Of course, it is now known that our bodies are in a state of constant renewal. Some tissues renew at a faster rate than others but within 8-10 years you have an entire new body of cells and while your neurons are not renewed, the myriad of new connections they make make them function as new. Within 12 months, we essentially recreate an entire new body of cells, neurons and possibilities. In addition, Recent understandings into neuroplasticity have highlighted the ability of the human brain to create and recreate new patterns and behaviours until the day we die. Despite the pervasive assumption that we reach an age of “peak health” and then slowly disintegrate into old age and decay, science actually shows that we have a remarkable ability to refresh our bodies, our health and our behaviour.
Death is something to fear and avoid
For the ancient Chinese philosopher, Zhuangzi, death was a natural and exquisite transition, whereby the individual body returns to unite with the constantly transforming physical universe. Sadly, as modern society has become further removed from a natural state of being, any view of death as a natural transition has been replaced by fear and avoidance. Subsequently, the desire to control our lives has expanded into a yearning to control our demise. In society, those approaching the end of life (those who remind us of our inevitable death) have become increasingly ignored, reviled and isolated. Too often, the elderly find themselves withdrawing from society and becoming more reclusive. Social practice and the media only perpetuate this isolation; death is something to be avoided or sensationalised; the elderly are to be disregarded or institutionalised. However, death is a natural part of life and there is incredible power to be found in recognising and appreciating the role it plays in our lives. By accepting and acknowledging our mortality — instead of avoiding it — we open ourselves up to the very gift of life. We become more present to the finite nature of our existence. We are better equipped to treasure each moment and grasp every opportunity we are offered.* *
Enhancing our attitude towards ageing
Evidence suggests that, ironically, we are most fearful of ageing when we are young. By the time we reach middle age, our anxieties about growing older tend to decrease. However, a New Zealand study reveals that many older people harbour silent concerns about ageing, including a significant number (19 per cent) who worry that they will become a burden to society. There is room for improvement in the way we view old age – both when we are young, and through to the end of life.
Changing society’s attitudes towards ageing and older people may take a concerted effort over several generations. However, any change begins with us, as individuals, and there are ways we can reject the unhealthy and untruthful paradigms expressed in the media, wider society (and within our own minds) and stay healthier in the process.
Firstly, we must defy the idea that old age requires withdrawal, and consciously resist the pressure to fade away as we grow older. Instead, we can take determined steps to increase our capacity for leadership, wisdom and contribution as we age, by:
Redefining our measurement of success
According to sociologists, our modern concept of success has been limited to being the best, winning, and beating others, meaning only a few individuals will ever “succeed”. As we age, there are many ways in which we will become less competitive, active and productive. However, it is possible to confrontsociety’s obsession with competition-based success and learn to value ourselves and others based on other, more intrinsic factors — specifically, the contributions that make a difference to the world such as wisdom, kindness and leadership.
Starting each day with a sense of purpose
Research shows that having a sense of meaning in your daily life is a powerful way to increase your happiness and lengthen your life. Your “purpose” does not need to be grand in order to be effective. In fact, it could be as simple as expressing yourself authentically, amplifying faith or gratitude, or choosing to be a vessel for tolerance and kindness.
Rejecting perfection; embracing evolution
Learn to laugh at the absurdity of society’s drive for perfection. Instead, celebrate the wonders of being a natural being. Remember, nature does not make mistakes — it makes explorations, adaptations and exquisitely unique variations, but never does nature “fail” at anything. Therefore, forget about striving for an arbitrary ideal, and thrive in your ability to grow, adapt, learn and endure.
Expanding into old age
Make a conscious decision to “expand” as you grow older. Studies show that those who remain active and continue to learn new skills into their twilight years are happier, healthier and enjoy greater cognitive wellbeing. Therefore, instead of shrinking into yourself as you age, use your time to widen your influence and broaden your horizons. Touch more lives, visit more places, learn more languages and explore more cultures.
With the discovery of neuroplasticity, we now know it is definitely possible to “teach an old dog new tricks”. Never stop learning. As your brain cells renew, make a conscious choice to fill them with new ideas and knowledge. Be curious and rebellious; be willing to change your mind and question your prior beliefs.
According to researchers, there are several (often subtle) factors that contribute to the lengthy, healthy lives of those who live in the world’s Blue Zones. These are areas such as Ikaria in Greece and Okinawa in Japan, where people live extraordinary, long lives. However, one consistent influence is the close familial and social connections enjoyed by these communities. Make an effort to remain connected as you age; stay vulnerable, open and active within your most inspiring social and familial circles.
Making peace with death
Find the courage to face your own mortality. Appreciate the gift of life and meet each day — whether challenging or celebratory — with a sense of gratitude and grace.
In the developed world, old age is largely regarded as an unfortunate addendum to one’s active and productive life, and this deeply embedded prejudice could take generations to change. However, society is nothing more than a collective of individuals, and we each have an opportunity to instigate change by enhancing our own perspective on ageing.
Research shows that we enjoy longer, happier and healthier lives when we embrace the ageing process; when we remain enthusiastic, curious, active and socially connected into our later years. As influential as factors such as genetics, socio-economics and fate may be in determining our longevity and wellbeing, it is up to you to determine how you choose to approach your later years. Will you allow yourself to fade into irrelevance and invisibility? Or will you step gracefully and gratefully into the final phase of your life? The choice is yours.