Building a New Old Age: Elderhood

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The Transforming Aging Summit, a three-day virtual event held recently, made the heady promise of delivering teachings and practices to inspire listeners to “age with grace and positivity and create a meaningful legacy for generations to come.”

Organizers of the event at The Shift Network did not cop a Pollyannish pose when mulling the realities of aging. They acknowledged that losses of various kinds, feelings of isolation and lack of purpose, physical pain and health problems, denial, and even the absence of positive role models are among the many challenges of growing older. But they brought together a diverse group of speakers including gerontologists, activists, dharma practitioners, authors, and entrepreneurs to argue that aging can present a time of fertile personal growth.

The Second Wind

The summit’s keynote speaker was Bill Thomas, who along with his wife Judith Meyers-Thomas, kicked off a mini-revolution in longterm care a couple decades ago by developing The Eden Alternative followed by the Green House Project focused on providing “person-centered care” in homelike settings.

Thomas’s session, titled “Getting Your Second Wind,” began with an illustration of the size of the issue: the now-familiar statistic that every 11 seconds, an American turns 65. “Walk down the street,” he urged. “This is the youngest America you will see. From here on out, for at least the next 40 years, America will get older every day. We can’t afford to drag our prejudices against aging with us. We will have to begin to build a new old age, suited to the way we live now.”

Thomas noted that most Americans, especially Baby Boomers, were raised with the notion that the final pinnacle of development would be adulthood — a time they would achieve certain rights and capabilities and expectations assumed to be the highest. “What’s missing from this cultural package is the bit of human wisdom that’s been around for a long, long time suggesting that there is life beyond adulthood,” he says.

That new phase of life is elderhood.

Thomas describes elderhood as a developmental process—an alteration of priorities that shifts a person away from busyness and status and preoccupation with material goods toward the sense that “being” matters more than “doing.” He notes that when a group of elders gets together, they tend to focus on forming meaningful relationships with one another rather than on furiously exchanging business cards and setting up meetings.

And as a tangible example, Thomas mentions a man who was recently offered a job as a CEO — an “adult” position. He pondered and rejected it, though. Rejected it because he wanted to spend more time with his grandchildren — a decision a prudent elder might make. “I love it when I get to see a child grow into an adult — that’s a beautiful thing,” he says. “But I also love it when I see an adult grow up and become an elder.”

The Tyranny of ‘Still’

A priceless teaching moment in the summit talk occurred after the interviewer, Ron Pevny, founder and director of the Center for Conscious Eldering, bragged a bit that though he is 68 years old, he still enjoys skiing, when a lot of people his age can no longer do it.

“But you don’t ski like a 27-year-old any more, do you?” asked Thomas. Silence set in as Pevny seemed to ponder quite a while before acknowledging he did not. Thomas predicted that as he ages, Pevny will one day make the decision to give up skiing. He soothed, however, that the decision would not be a loss, but a gain of reshaping his life to fit the body he is in then.

Thomas then turned to another illustration, the sentence: My 86-year-old mother drives her car. “If the word ‘still’ is added — ‘ My 86-year-old mother still drives her car’ — it means you are judging that person by the yardstick of the functional capacity of what a younger person can do,” he says. It’s more accurate not to use the “yardstick of adulthood,” he says: “It is our culture’s inability to see the value of life beyond adulthood that traps people in a desperate and ultimately doomed effort to continue living as adults.”

Three Approaches to Aging

While the passing of time might help prepare some for elderhood, it doesn’t guarantee the passage, according to Thomas. And some people never make it.

In his view, people hold one of three approaches to aging, described in detail in his book, Second Wind: Navigating the Passage to a Slower, Deeper, and More Connected Life.

They include:

Denialists — Those who hate and fear aging and don’t find one good thing about it. “Imagine trying to learn to ride a bicycle if you absolutely hate bicycles and fear them,” says Thomas, noting that the most extreme Denialists will go to great lengths to appear younger — a stance that fools few and can make the people into parodies: “A 72-year-old woman is not a 32-year-old,” he notes.

Realists — Those who would rather not age, but know and understand it’s necessary. Somewhat happier than the Denialists, they are the types who religiously ingest flax seed, do Suduko puzzles, and log their 10,000 steps a day in the hope that aging won’t be as bad as expected. But they want to perpetuate adulthood as long as they reasonably can.

Enthusiasts — Those with the attitude: ‘I don’t know what’s next, but I’m ready for the adventure.’ Thomas says this is the smallest group, but it holds the most hope for changing the future in positive ways.

Still, Denialists and Realists are to be forgiven, Thomas says, because ageism is easy to internalize. And it’s all around in the form of jokes, comments, and greeting cards. “Ageism is not only ubiquitous, it’s quite readily accepted in our culture,” he says. “Ageism is the last bigotry that can be spoken of in polite company — and it is.”

For those who recognize the traits of Denialists or Realists in themselves but want to evolve, Thomas urges beginning with an honest look — literally. “Go to a private place and take a long look at yourself in the mirror and drink in the way you look now; make it consonant with who you are,” he says. “Kick ageism out of your own head.”

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