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Successful Aging: Most times, you really aren’t as old as you feel

Q I am 78 years old with several chronic conditions. I use a cane and must admit that I am in constant pain, which affects everything I do. For the first time I really feel old and believe that others see me that way. When on a bus or train, individuals offer me their seat; when others speak to me they raise their voices and some just pat me on the shoulder. I don’t feel the way I think they see me. What can I do to change others’ perception of me?

— S.S.

A Dear S.S.:

Given our youth-centered society, your question is one that many of us may confront at some point.

Let’s begin with the fact you are suffering from chronic pain, a reason that one can feel and look older. By older, I am referring to moving more slowly, even tentatively and perhaps not hearing or even seeing so well. Energy may be less. And looking older may mean having wrinkles and (for some) gray hair, all part of normal aging.

In a study of 18,500 participants 50 years and older, researchers found chronic pain sufferers functioned as if they were much older in four physical activities: walking and jogging, climbing stairs, using their arms and also in everyday activities such as bathing, dressing and eating. Research evidence does not change the situation; it just validates that having chronic pain and feeling old often go together.

On average, older people feel about 13 years younger than they really are, according to a study of aging from the University of Michigan and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. These results were based on a survey of participants ages 70 to 104. Those who were particularly healthy and active expressed a greater difference between their actual age and how old they felt.

Let’s talk about the use of a cane. Clearly it is important in providing stability and limiting pain.

Some may associate its use with aging. However, it also can be a fashion statement that is positive. Canes are available in colors, prints and with gems and fancy handles. One could have a wardrobe of canes to match various outfits which might be considered cool.

Culture plays a role in the perception of aging. In our culture, looking your age is not a typical aspiration for many older adults. The compliment, “You don’t look your age,” is most often welcomed, except when it is not.

Writer-activist Gloria Steinem noted years ago when she turned 40, someone extended the compliment, “You don’t look your age.” Instead of saying thank you, Steinem replied: “This is what 40 looks like.” She continued that response on her 80th birthday by saying “This is what 80 looks like.”

Attitude counts — big time.

A negative attitude toward aging can evolve into a self-fulfilling prophesy. In a study of older adults over a 23-year period, Becca Levy, professor of epidemiology and psychology at Yale, found older adults who viewed aging as a positive period of life lived 71/2 years longer than those who had a negative view of aging.

Other studies indicated those with a positive outlook on aging functioned better in accomplishing household chores, climbing stairs and more; they reported decreased illnesses and displayed less risk of Alzheimer’s disease and depression.

Whether we like it or not, physical appearances are important. How each of us deals with this is a personal matter.

A few more thoughts. Someone offering a seat on a bus or train can be a sign of respect. Let’s applaud such actions.

And when someone addresses us in a condescending way we can respond by saying, “Thank you for your concern; I am just fine.” If someone speaks to us in an unnecessary loud tone, we can say, “Thank you for speaking a little louder; I can hear you in your normal talking voice.”

Finally, a little self-assessment counts. Are we being the best we can be — at any age?

Thank you, S.S., for your good question that helps all of us to become more aware of our environment, limitations and acceptance of what can and what cannot be modified. Clearly chronic pain can influence one’s outlook and motivation to care. Maybe just a little tweaking on your part can create a different perception. And if not, just walk tall with a smile.

I am reminded of a quote from a former yoga teacher who said: “You are perfect the way you are.” Not a bad thought.

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