What are the paradoxes of aging well?

I’ve been working on the Introduction for the book proposal, and am delighted by the fact that a number of ideas fell nicely into place. One of them was the framing of three central paradoxes of aging well.  The first I knew intuitively.  The third one was a complete surprise when I encountered it through my reading; then (duh!) I realized that it mirrored my own experience. The second one I only figured out a few weeks ago, while trying to synthesize research findings.

First and foremost, we must accept the constraints of age and also push back against them. Hokey perhaps, but Dylan Thomas’ exhortation to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” never fails to move me. I’m determined to stay vertical as long as I can. Yet old age involves loss — of acuity, of mobility, of choices — that each of us must acknowledge, internalize, cope with as best we can. This is the path to gratitude over bitterness, open-mindedness over isolation/withdrawal, calm over anxiety. 

Paradox #2: the realities of aging that must be acknowledged are themselves relative, and highly fluid. Since the beginning of the 20th century, thanks to better nutrition, exercise, healthcare, and technologies, the average U.S. life expectancy has risen thirty years — to 77.6 years. Eighty may not be the new thirty, as MSNBC chirped in a story about octogenarians who run companies, but most of these additional years are healthy ones. Disability rates continue to decline for persons 65 and older, 64% of whom report no limitation in major activities. The incidence of Alzheimer’s is rising along with lifespans, but so is evidence of the brain’s plasticity in late life. As with heart disease, the model is shifting to prevention. Exercising our gray matter, whether by learning a new language or playing Sudoku, generates new neurons and helps keep dementia at bay.

This changing landscape demands that we revise our preconceptions of what it’s like to grow old in the 21st century. As Dr. Robert Butler says,  “The social construct of old age, even the inner life and the activities of older persons, is now subject to review and revision.” 

The third paradox is deeply counterintuitive: the more we know about aging, the less terror it holds. I’m a long way from coming to terms with mortality, but the getting-older bit is looking better all the time.  My experience is not anomalous.  A 2004 survey conducted by AARP and researchers at the University of Southern California  established that “less knowledge about aging is associated with greater anxiety about the aging process.” Most respondents (89%) were aware that older Americans can learn, are either working or want work to do (88%) and feel healthy (79%). But misconceptions abound. More than two thirds thought that the majority of older people are “senile,” “pretty much alike,” and “have no capacity for sex.” No wonder they’re nervous! But these projections are inaccurate. They don’t reflect the heterogeneity of older Americans, who are as diverse as any other cohort, nor their actual sense of well-being. A number of recent studies graph “U-shaped happiness”:  highest levels of contentment at the beginnings and ends of our lives.

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