I like to talk about becoming an Old Person in Training as way to move beyond denial, overcome internalized ageism, and connect to our future selves. At the BOOM conference in Denver in October, it was wonderful to come across a kindred spirit, aging-focused psychotherapist Kyrie Sue Carpenter, and her very different scenario for achieving the very same goals.
In a presentation called Embracing Aging, Kyrie described some of the attributes that America prizes: a fast pace (we eat in our cars; goods and services are just a click away); doing over being (social media relentlessly chronicles our accomplishments); youthfulness (there’s a rush to get 19, and then we’re supposed to continue to look and act that age until we’re 90); and hypercognition (the better your score on standardized tests, the better you are).
As Kyrie pointed out, these priorities serve us poorly, especially as we age. When we cling to youth, we forfeit opportunities to develop and grow. We’re hostage to what geriatrician Bill Thomas calls “the tyranny of still”: the delusion that as long as we’re still working, still dating, still running up the stairs, we can stop the clock—as if that that would be a good thing. That way of thinking underlies a friend’s Cool Hair Theory: that dated hairstyles (e.g. 1984, mullet, no question) reflect the period when people felt the best about themselves, and they and their hair stay trapped there. The wishful notion that “If I can just look like I’m 19, I’ll be 19” is a bad fashion move, and a delusion.
“Being anti-aging doesn’t make sense,” said Kyrie. “A lot of the suffering comes from fighting aging.” Fear puts olders at increased risk for suicide, with feelings of alienation or worthlessness reinforced by the ageist stereotype that being old means being sick, frail, and sad. As she wrote in her dissertation, age denial “only aids people in becoming what they fear in old age: rigid, selfish, and obsolete.”
The reality is that aging is inevitable but worthy of embrace, and that fear of aging is preventable. (As I put it, fear of dying is human while fear of aging is cultural—and culture can change.) In an ageist culture, Kyrie’s ask was simple yet radical: “It is necessary to redefine aging, including senility, as natural versus pathological.” Redefine it and we can embrace changes with curiosity and an open mind, continue to develop as humans, and be open to what aging has to teach. As a tool, Kyrie proposed an alternative set of values that reflect what we learn as we age: a fluid, rhythmic pace (vs. speed for its own sake), community as the basis for life story (vs. a record of accomplishments), a shifting physical appearance and ability (vs. a youthful aesthetic and prowess ideal), and alternative ways of knowing (vs. hyper-cognition). The initials conformed to the acronym and handy mnemonic PLAY: a framework and attitude to help us embrace aging at any age, accept that there’s no right path, and start practicing—the sooner the better. In other words, become an Old Person in Training.
I know, PLAY sounds like more fun. Here’s how Kyrie’s acronym breaks down:
- Pacing – knowing the right pace for a given moment or a given task alleviates suffering. Becoming more sensitive to that pace and to the flow of life makes it easer to adapt to the gradual slowing that occurs in late life.
- Life story – Aging teaches the value of the intangibles in a life story, including the importance of community and the worth of a given moment. Relationships and community rise to the top, especially for people with dementia, which, Kyrie wryly noted, “is particularly good at rearranging a person’s life story. A sense of who we are is more than what we remember at the moment, or what we’ve done or once were.” She’s worked extensively with dementia patients, and described a woman who was more comfortable among people who were familiar, even if she couldn’t place them. “She would say, ‘I can’t remember you here’—tapping her head—‘but I remember you here’—pressing her hands to her heart. Every moment you spend with someone is a piece of you for them to hold when you are gone,” Kyrie added.
- Aesthetics – It’s OK for art to be “useless,” Kyrie pointed out, so why we don’t cut ourselves the same slack, and acknowledge that it’s just fine not to look a certain way. Why do we think wrinkles are ugly? What if this shifting was accepted without judgment, if we focused instead on the gestalt of a person?
- Your perspective – a reminder to value ways of knowing based on emotion, sensation and relationship in addition to reason, and to be curious instead of searching for a single superlative truth. There are many different perspectives, and countless ways to acquire them.
PLAY won’t make aging easy, Kyrie acknowledged. But as she has written about dementia, “Just because something is difficult does not mean that it needs to be cured.” Cultivate these values and aging will be less difficult, more appreciated, and more fun. The central challenge again: to redefine aging, including senility, as natural versus pathological. Kyrie frames this primarily in Jungian terms of personal growth. My framework is more political: reject the 20th century’s medicalization, problematization, and commodification of aging. Our goal is the same, and she describes it beautifully: “to create a culture that holds the aging process, rather than rejects it, and may again craft rites and rituals to embrace every stage of life as beautiful and unique and purposeful.”