This summer, like many of you, I took some time to travel and catch up with family and friends. We talked a bit about my book on healthy aging at home. From these discussions -- and a bit of sleuthing around various hotels and houses -- I have begun pondering the role that attitudes play in our practical response to aging. Herewith, my unscientifically drawn insights.
First, if you're 50 or older, you're thinking about aging. Even people who are happy with their lives, absorbed in their professions, content with their close relationships, are aware that they're getting older and that things will change and their needs will grow. "Aging Industry," you don't have to tell people that old age is right around the corner. Folks have figured this out.
Second, "aging" is still an amorphous concept -- perhaps rightly so. By middle age, it seems that when people think about "aging," they're not thinking about it in developmental terms across the life span. They seem to be thinking of aging as the process of becoming and then being "old." Not surprisingly, that's how "aging" is presented in the business and research worlds.
Third, while we know that getting older is a normal part of life, we're trying to figure out if the normal can be good. By now, we've watched other people get older and get the gist: People get sick, things hurt, friends and lovers die. You have less time to do the things you want to do, make the money you want to make, start over if you want. Will it be any different for us? Given the fundamentals, can we make it any different?
Fourth, people cheerfully announce that they're in denial about aging, but is that true? When you're in denial, you don't know it. From this, I conclude that people who say they're in denial are not actually in denial. It may instead be defiance, a generation-wide re-framing. "I'll decide when I'm old, thank you very much!"
Fifth, aha! That would explain the homes proudly renovated or built "with backing board in the bathroom for grab bars"... and yet no actual bars for grabbing. It would explain, "I know I have to do something about those rugs... but not yet." Because "old" is not something that we want to be unless we're sure we'll feel good and be flush, "old" keeps getting pushed out further into the future. And sure as night follows day, so do all those practical accommodations to becoming old. We put off changes -- such as balance bars, safety treads, improved handrails, clear floors and good lighting -- that could actually help us prevent or defer what we (mis-)perceive as part and parcel of being old: pain and disability.
Sixth, those of us born at the height of the Baby Boom are right in the middle of all this -- aware, ambivalent and probably more than a bit anxious. Given the mixed signals about aging ("You'll fall apart!" "You'll do hot yoga!" "You'll eat cat food!" "Hire an estate lawyer!"), is it any wonder?
Given this handful of observations, here's what I think is gonna happen.
One by one, we are going to start sifting through the evidence about aging, examine our own lives and decide how we want to play the game. And one by one, we will start coming to terms with our changing needs. It's not happening as fast or as broadly as safety and medical experts would like (meaning we'll have more pain that could have been prevented and more costs we can't really afford) but we will come to terms nevertheless.
Given the ounce-of-prevention philosophy pervading my book, it should be obvious I go to Camp "And You Better Come to Terms Fast 'cause We Have Work to Do."
Because, given this new normative experience of getting old, we do have so much to do. We have problems to solve. We even have solutions that could be within our reach... so to speak. For example, by putting actual grab bars in that actual backing board, we could save ourselves broken hips, brain injury, and worse.
Uncomfortable? Avoidant? Want to fight back? Consider whether denial and defiance are the best ways to respond to the situation. Like an impartial parent who tunes out teen defiance, nature doesn't care about our attitude. Don't like aging? It's not about whether we like it. So we can spit in the face of aging or we can remember that when we do, the wind might be blowing in our face.
So, during the coming year, when you get together with folks you love for holidays and on vacations, have fun. Re-connect. And really talk -- not only about aging, but also how to act on it. "All talk, no action," is frustrating and counter-productive. As I said, we know we're getting old. Let's take it to the next level. Be open with your friends and family about the steps you are taking--whether they be lifting hand weights to stay strong or installing better handrails (preferably both!). Share what works and doesn't work the same way you talked about raising your babies. Be a role model. Set a tone of openness and normality about making smart, sensible changes and accommodations.
Life is a living lab: Share your experiments.
And, if you were lucky enough to stay in some nice hotels, consider viewing your home as would a savvy hotelier. After all if, if your hotel had grab bars, you just paid for the privilege. (And they, having viewed actuarial tables, reduced their liability.) Acknowledge the needs of your regular guests and make them more comfortable. Reduce the chances of Chez You suffering an unfortunate incident. Make your home a place that people can and want to stay. And have some great last-days-of-summer.
Did you notice anything interesting about "aging" this summer in the people you saw or the places you stayed? Did it make you want to make any changes to your home when you got back? How do you deal with discomfort about aging?