Saturday, October 13, 2012

Aging Happens to Other People, Not to Me

Photo by theqspeaks
Since starting my graduate work in gerontology, I have been emboldened to talk with people about aging issues. People usually deflect the topic of aging to the generation above them. They resist accepting their own aging; hence, my blog's title.

Even my octogenarian friend Lupe talks about "those old people you could help in your new vocation, Karen." Granted, she's very healthy, active, independent and mentally sharp. Nevertheless, she demonstrates several markers for the category "older adult" as anyone in her 80s would.  But she wasn't interested in any information or insights that I've gleaned about the aging process. Maybe she sees me as too young to have any authority on the topic. I might have figured that when she chuckled and patted me on the head.

As a self-appointed advocate for healthy aging, I've talked with people in grocery stores, in the waiting room at the auto repair shop, in the seats at the movie theater, in the foyer at my local church, and in the halls of local nursing homes.

My observation about resistance has led me to ask even silver-haired strangers, "Are you offering support to an older adult in your life?"  When I approach them this way, they are more open to talk with me about aging issues.  And with the increase in the average lifespan, very often mature adults are helping a parent in his or her 80s or 90s.

I've had some very productive conversations with strangers where I have learned a lot about how they are supporting older adults: they're checking on widows living up the street, supporting parents in rural Kansas, or keeping an eye on relatives one or more time zones away.  Sometimes the "older person" is a spouse, sibling or friend close to their age.  Their age mate is having aging issues, but they are not.

Every once and a while, these supportive friends will then switch their focus to talk about how they plan on managing their own health, finances, housing and support system so that their aging process will go more smoothly for them.  But they have to initiate those conversations about their own aging issues. If I start asking, they shut down and disappear in a cloud of dust. Poof.  "What! Are you calling me old?"  Remember Carl Fredericksen from the movie Up?

He mocks boy scout Russell's attempts to offer assistance by sarcastically describing himself as "elderly and infirm."  Just like Russell, I have failed in getting an older adult to accept my offer to "assist" them.  Developing a relationship of mutual support works better.  Consequently, I have learned to never suggest to anyone that they might have a need to manage aging issue unless they bring up the topic first.  This strikes me as a little bit funny, since logically, everyone is aging.  People reach their physical peak in their twenties, but I have met very few people of any age who see themselves as over the hill.

Even people receiving assistance with activities of daily living will enumerate their strengths and obscure their challenges.  Last week a friend of mine who is struggling multiple chronic diseases flexed her biceps and bragged about her strength while lying in bed and receiving oxygen.  I was genuinely impressed.

On the whole, I think resting the label of "old" is an admirable human trait.  Better tomorrows are built on a foundation of daily optimism, hope and a can-do attitude.  Repeatedly, I recite lines from Dylan Thomas' poem "Do not go gentle into that good night."

This poem might contain images of older people who are active in the dying process, but I often observe similar raging from people decades a way from death.  When people hit midlife, they often show a swelling of energy, determination, and great focus in resisting physical signs of aging and social markers of aging.  Mature adults rave at Father Time while participating in a zumba class with people 20 and 30 years their junior. At other times, they are blinding meteors in their vocations. Yes, they might take a few more notes than they used to, but they are better prepared to achieve amazing professional feats by using their experience, vast skill sets, extensive connections and multi-decade observations.

I, too, foreground my most youthful traits and communicate that "I've got things well under control" for any age-related issues. At 50, I do have a few minor signs of aging that I must manage. I have to do my most demanding intellectual work between 4 am and noon. I have to exercise regularly or I feel fatigued and my joints get stiff.  I can't eat junk, or I immediately feel sluggish. I have to dress up and wear a little make up and jewelry when I go out or I look haggard.

But when the teenage bagger at the grocery store asks, "Do you need help getting those groceries to your car?" I have been known to drop and do a dozen push ups as a demonstration of my vitality.  After all, I have at least three decades left for using my strengths and abilities to support the generation above me before I start applying anything that I am learning to myself, right?


What Traits Make a Person an Older Adult?
Outrunning Father Time and the Grim Reaper
Don't Be a Boy Scout: Preserving the  Independence of Older Adults
Acknowledge the Abilities of Older Adults

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