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Successful Aging: Getting older isn’t the same for everyone

Q. We hear that old age is not for sissies. Yet much of what I read describes aging in the most positive terms. Where is the balance when we talk about getting old? For some it’s not fun. D.H.

Dear D.H.

Indeed, it’s important to be realistic when it comes to aging.

Historically, there was little interest in the subject because there weren’t enough people living into old age and little was known about the subject. That does not mean that aging was never addressed.

Arthur Krystal recently wrote a piece in the Nov. 4 issue of The New Yorker entitled, “Why we can’t tell the truth about aging” He identifies individuals from history who perceived aging with many drawbacks as well as an occasional attribute.

Here are a few examples he cited:

In “Ars Rhetorica,” Aristotle denounced “old men as miserly, cowardly, cynical, loquacious and temporarily chilly.” His teacher Plato emphasized aging as natural and consequently good, yet had a somewhat sexist perspective. He wrote that men in their mature years were best suited for philosophy; women, regardless of age, were not.

On the upside, the 16th-century French writer and philosopher Montaigne considered the end of a long life to be “…rare and extraordinary” while the American poet Walt Whitman described aging as a period of “youth, large, lusty, loving – youth full of grace, force and fascination.” Krystal comments that we need to be aware “that old age may come after us with equal grace, force and fascination.”

We’ve come a long way. Many of today’s books and articles view aging with hope and opportunity based on evidence and experience. Examples include “The Happiness Curve” by John Rauch focusing on why life gets better after 50 and Asheton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism” who writes that aging is a time of “less social anxiety and few social phobias.” Add to that Marc Freedmans’ book “How to live forever: emphasizing the importance of connecting the generations and Chris Farrell’s book, “Purpose and a paycheck: finding meaning, money and happiness in the second half of life.”

Let’s go back to your point about balancing the good and the bad about aging.

Consider some of the advantages:

Aging is better than not aging.

Older adults are considered the happiest demographic in the world.

They have the joy of grandchildren.

Volunteer opportunities abound.

Older adults have more control over emotions and typically develop deeper relationships compared to their previous years.

For many, retirement provides a sense of freedom.

Age-friendly cities are emerging that will make transportation, housing and employment more accessible.

Technology is increasing the opportunities for older adults to live more safely while preserving their independence.

Entrepreneurship among older adults is growing with large numbers of successes.

Yet, there is a downside:

Caregiving responsibilities emerge, sometimes as an emotional and financial burden, other times as an opportunity to deepen a relationship.

The cost of health and long-term care is high and even unaffordable for many.

Loneliness and isolation are considered a national epidemic.

Over time, mobility may diminish.

At some point, physical and mental functioning tends to decline although at different rates for different people. Note that healthy lifestyles can slow this process and even increase functioning.

Immune systems are less robust leading to greater vulnerability to disease and illnesses.

Losses are common from losing a loved one to loss of independence.

The risk of Alzheimer’s Disease increases with age, a disease that has no agreed-upon cause or cure.

This negative list sounds overwhelming. Yet there are efforts and even solutions that ameliorate or even eliminate many of these challenges.

Krystal writes, “the optimistic narrative of pro-aging writers doesn’t line up with the dark story told by the human body.” This certainly is one perspective. Yet his reference to Simone de Beauvoir, French author and philosopher, gives us a more hopeful vision. She writes that what we need to do is to “pursue ends that give meaning to our existence.” That can be translated into living a life of purpose. I would add a little kindness for good measure.

D.H., Thank you for your good question. I hope this provides a little balance to the aging story.

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