Betty White. Queen Elizabeth. Warren Buffet. Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Each of these illustrious elders has been a household name for decades. Yet while we may marvel at Betty White still acting at 98, or Queen Elizabeth continuing to reign at 93, we tend to view such shining lights as anomalies. Many people perceive the lives of seniors as shrinking with advancing years: bland food, familiar behaviors, weakening capacity, and declining health that often becomes an “organ recital.”
But it’s time to change this narrative, say leaders in the longevity field. Flipping our perceptions of aging can also flip the outcomes. If we flip discussions of mobility issues to strength training, and loneliness and isolation to a focus on creativity and purpose, what will that mean for the seniors we serve?
Shifting the Story
“While changing cultural perceptions is not easy, the alternative is to acquiesce to an unacceptable status quo that undermines our ability to build support for aging-friendly policies, necessary research investments, and the future of our every-generation-nation. Let’s change the ‘conventional wisdom’ on aging together,” asserts James C. Appleby, CEO of the Gerontological Society of America, which launched the Reframing Aging Initiative in 2014.
At MIT’s AgeLab, Lifestyle Leaders who are all 85+ (the group known as “the oldest old”) meet bimonthly to share their opinions, feedback, and discussion about what will best support people at this life stage. AgeLab says the group has provided input on “finances, fitness, faith, fall prevention and fashion — and that’s just the F’s.”
“We need more imagination with our thinking,” says research associate Julie Miller. “There’s not enough research on this group. We now know more about what it means to be 65, but we don’t have enough nuanced information about what it means to live this long.”
Positive Aging in Action
Jan Hively is a good example. After a career in city planning, instead of strolling off into the sunset of her life, Hively returned to school to earn a PhD in positive aging at 69, writing her dissertation on “Productive Aging in Rural Communities.” Ever since, she’s focused on raising awareness of opportunities and challenges for older adults.
Hively connects people and ideas in several thriving networks that support lifework planning and positive aging, including the Vital Aging Network, ArtSage (which provides training programs and community consulting on the emerging hybrid field of arts and aging), SHIFT: Navigating Midlife Transitions and a global program innovations exchange, the Pass It On Network. She teaches and consults internationally, and has been honored repeatedly for her groundbreaking work.
Not a typical octogenarian, though as the AgeLab Lifestyle Leaders demonstrate, people like Jan are a growing demographic. In France, for example, a group calling itself “Octoplus” (men and women over 80) meets regularly to envision the future they want to animate, with a strong focus on meaning.
Hively says, “The time is ripe for elders to step up and change the culture of aging worldwide, guiding the shift from a needs-based, consumer society to a collaborative society, an intergenerational society in which people throughout life have responsibilities to share their strength to help themselves, to help each other and to help their communities.
“There is no substitute for us being role models who can walk the talk and speak for ourselves, appreciating ‘old’ all the way through the last breath.”
Intergenerational Alliances Enable Seniors to Share Wisdom
As anyone with grandchildren knows, today’s seniors and Millennials go together like pie à la mode. Seniors who serve their communities as volunteers find renewed meaning, purpose and satisfaction mentoring students on how to navigate life — and for many, this includes a strong focus on the arts. What engages at one end of the life spectrum holds equal appeal at the other end, as Hively and her team have discovered.
And creativity doesn’t decline simply because we grow old. In fact, this may be when a mature adult is finally ready to do his or her most creative work! Matisse created a new art form in his final decade of life. Norman Maclean wrote “A River Runs Through It” at 74. One man, who spent his work life doing physical labor, is launching his line of wildly inventive “art cards” at 72. He’s as excited as a teenager, and says his creative potential is “unlimited”.
Another inspirational concept is the Speaking Exchange, a cross-generational experiment that teams students in Brazil who want to practice their English skills with senior living community residents in Chicago, who are eager to talk with new people. The exchanges take place via video chat, and are incredibly touching. What a fabulous way for elders to pass along their wisdom as virtual grandparents, performing a valuable service and receiving an invaluable gift in return. As seniors become ever more digitally adept, such opportunities will continue to grow.
Perhaps one of the best ways we can help flip the narrative on aging is by changing how we refer to older adults. With many people retiring later, or, in the case of artists, actors, reigning monarchs and financial wizards, not “retiring” at all, it behooves us to become creative in redefining this Third Act. Here are some alternative terms to consider:
· Act 2
· Bonus years
· Creative aging
· Field of Possibilities
· Growing bolder
· Life 2.0
· My time
· Next Chapter
· Next stage
· Repotting (in new soil)
· The Creative Age
· The Gifted Years
· Third Quarter
The sage-ing, seasoned, repotted, unstoppable, prime time adults who are growing bolder are reimagining what aging looks like in the third millennium. Here at The Kensington White Plains, we’re excited to support them in living their best lives, through an outstanding assisted living environment that offers exceptional life enrichment events, superb dining to suit every taste, and the kind of active professional support that makes our residents delighted to call The Kensington home.
Come visit us soon, and discover how we can help your loved one unleash their creativity in this next chapter of their life!