Recently someone asked me if the Princeton Senior Resource Center would co-sponsor a talk called “Don’t Let an Old Person Move Into Your Body.” I thought about it for several days, and then I declined.
It was certainly nice to be asked. But I just couldn’t get past the feeling that there was an implied insult to older adults that I didn’t want to participate in. What if I said “don’t let a girl move into your body?” Or a college professor? Or a Latina? All of these would be considered offensive. So why is it okay to say this about OLD?
Our culture is extremely anti-aging. Whole industries thrive on removing wrinkles and folds. Elderhostel changed its name to Exploritas to get “elder” out of the image. People won’t come to a program at PSRC because it is a “senior center,” which conjures images of old people sitting around waiting for lunch (clearly they have not visited PSRC). Boomers are especially prone to age-denial. Most have no plan to retire at all and 25 million have saved less than $1,000. They do everything they can to avoid anything related to aging.
I understand that the central theme of this motivational speaker’s presentation is that much depends on our attitude about aging. I agree that we can choose not to “think old,” to keep active and engaged, to find purpose and passion throughout our lives. This is one of the things I love about working at PSRC: every day I work with people who are actively learning, doing, and giving to their families and communities. What wonderful role models for us all.
But I do not agree with the author that “getting old is a myth.” The reality is that physically we are aging. I think those who are most successful at aging find ways to adapt to this reality. You take gentle yoga and senior aerobics rather than a high-paced class at a fitness center. You volunteer 10 hours a week instead of working 50 hours. And yes, some of you are still running marathons.
In my years at PSRC, I have also met many people who feel that you deserve some respect for your age and wisdom. My question is: how do we change our culture to one that honors and reveres old age? In New Age lingo, how can we “embrace and nurture our inner elder?” Our upcoming fall conference on Saturday, October 23 will feature Willo Carey, executive director of WHYY’s Wider Horizons, a partner in the Coming of Age project, which is helping people age 50-plus explore their future, working to change our culture to view people in the second half of life as a tremendous resource and this time in life as a great opportunity.
Interestingly, the New York Times has had two articles recently that relate to this issue. In “Old Age From Youth’s Narrow Prism” (March 1, 2010), author Marc Agronin MD points out that we often view old age through the eyes of youth, and that by so doing, we imagine only pain and loss, but fail to see the joys of new pursuits and the wisdom and meaning that age can bring. On May 31 Nicholas Bakalar, in “Happiness May Come With Age,” reports that a large 2008 Gallup poll found that people get happier as they get older.
So I want to be in the forefront of a movement that honors, respects, reveres, and even envies old people. In the same way that 40 years ago we changed the perception that women could not do many jobs traditionally held by men, we must confront those who think that age is all about loss and diminishment. Confront people who use ageist language and concepts. Be mindful of the ways that you unwittingly buy into these perceptions and perpetuate them. Get involved in intergenerational groups so that youth get to know who you really are and can benefit from your wisdom and experience. Embrace your inner elder with pride.
Susan Hoskins LCSW has been the executive director of the Princeton Senior Resource Center for eight years, overseeing the renovation of the Suzanne Patterson Building, doubling of the programs, and expansion of support and guidance services.
She earned her BA from Earlham College in Richmond, IN, and her MSW from Rutgers Graduate School of Social Work. She also holds certificates in gerontology and senior service management. She was a family therapist at the Family Guidance Center of Mercer County for 20 years prior to coming to PSRC.
Hoskins lives on the campus of George School in Newtown, PA, where her husband teaches in the arts, and her younger son is a junior. Her older son is seeking local video production work after working for Oberlin College for two years. Her parents live in a nearby retirement community. At the age of 57, Hoskins is active in her Quaker Meeting and loves being outdoors, gardening, and yoga.