Rethinking Old Age For The New Century

Rethinking Old Age For The New Century

May 20, 2015

Old age doesn’t appear without warning. In the movies you might wake up, face yourself in the mirror, notice the grey hair, and suddenly realize that you’re old. The actual experience is more gradual.

smiling old Russian woman

I spoke on the phone with Judi Bonilla, a gerontologist from San Diego. She explained:

“Aging isn’t something that happens to you. We’re aging from the moment we’re born. We’re just not conscious of it.”

Old age is simply part of “who we get to be as we move through life.” You’re always one minute older than you were a minute ago, right? Aging isn’t just inevitable—it’s totally normal.

Of course, “normal” doesn’t rule out “scary”. Big life changes are daunting, no matter how slowly they approach. The good news is that every community-member has the power to make aging less traumatic for elderly people and their loved ones—which, news flash, means all of us!

Current American society isn’t elder-friendly, despite the numerous senior citizen discounts available on Main Street, but with adjusted attitudes and subsequent practical changes, we can integrate the generations, supporting all stages of life. Every family and individual will benefit from greater day-to-day age diversity.

grandma and grandson

Judi Bonilla emphasized the wisdom that older residents can bring to a community. When a person has experienced more than half a century of life, they possess hard-won perspective. Doctor Louise Aronson, UCSF geriatrician and director of the Northern California Geriatric Education Center, agreed with Bonilla’s assessment, although she warns that the word “wisdom” can be trite, met with eye-rolling from old folks themselves.

Aronson added that science supports the common perception that people become more emotionally mature as they age. Younger adults should remember that seniors can bring as much value to their lives as vice versa.

As a gerontologist, Judi Bonilla encourages elderly people and their family members to consciously mold their attitudes toward aging. On the phone she explained, “Embracing interdependence and connection is one of the best ways [to] look at the experience.”

This contradicts the American default of frontier-oriented self-sufficiency, but Bonilla reminded me, “We depend on each other whether we realize it or not.” Many elderly people feel uncomfortable about needing support, but it’s natural and beautiful to rely on the people in your life.

Traffic in Bangkok

Bonilla cited driving as an example of this principle. We all trust other drivers on the road to obey the rules, not swerving erratically or crashing into anyone, and most drivers behave well. Each of us must embrace the fact that our safety inherently depends on the rest of the community.

Bonilla asserted that Americans are becoming increasingly aware of our interdependence as older adults become a greater part of day-to-day life. She added that consumer movements like “farm to table” encourage us to acknowledge our wide-ranging reliance on other people, which can mitigate the resentment or guilt we may feel when that reliance becomes more intimate.

Doctor Aronson agreed: “Even in the past two years, there’s been a sea change. So many people are talking about this.”

aging with grace

What is your perspective on old age as a phase of life? Have your thoughts changed in the past few years? Let’s discuss on Facebook or Twitter.

Photos by Darren Baldwin, docmonstereyesJoan Campderrós-i-Canas, and BK/martinduss.

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