“Well, you know, she’s almost 80,” the daughter replied, with the classic wink and apologetic head-tilt when asked how her mother is doing.
Too often, we as a society take for granted a progressively lower quality of life and less productivity in people as they age—and in turn, many seniors succumb to a self-fulfilling prophecy of decline, believing that passing some imaginary number of birthdays presents both a license and an obligation to slow down, step aside, isolate, and fade away. Granted, our years and gravity eventually take some physical toll, and few of us can hope to ever receive national acclaim for conquering Mt. Everest at 76 or long distance running at 101. However, the erroneous presumption that facial wrinkles and the number of one’s years are key indicators for the capacity to achieve excellence is a pitiable commentary on our understanding of the importance of remaining fully engaged for the duration of life.
Statistics show that people over the age of 50 with more positive perceptions of aging live an average of 7.5 years longer than those with negative perceptions of aging.1 In addition, older adults exposed to positive stereotypes of aging have significantly better memory and balance than those exposed to negative ones.2 So what does it take to acquire a positive outlook and help to create those positive stereotypes? The answer is simple: we do both of these things when we engage in meaningful activity and acquire a sense of purpose, such as that of serving others.
We must stop worrying about what we cannot do now or will not be able to do in the future, and instead find constructive, creative things to do that can make a difference in other people’s lives today. Can you make a phone call to a lonely friend and offer encouragement? Are you able to join with AARP volunteers to lobby our legislators for a just cause? Would you be willing to let a child who is struggling academically practice reading to you? Can you, like former President Jimmy Carter (age 92), champion the end of homelessness by helping to build houses with Habitat for Humanity? The number and breadth of opportunities for meaningful service are endless, and somewhere on that list is activity that will not only bring a great deal of personal joy for yourself and those you help; it will also inform other generations that growing older should be eagerly anticipated.
Remember—just because we cannot do some things does not mean that we are supposed to do nothing. In the words of John F. Kennedy, “One person can make a difference, and everyone should try.”
1 Levy, Becca R. et al: “Longevity Increased by Positive Self-Perceptions of Aging.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2002, Vol. 83, No. 2, pp261-270. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/psp-832261.pdf.
2 Dittman, Melissa: “Fighting Ageism.” American Psychological Association, May 2003, Vol. 34, No. 5, p50. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/may03/fighting.aspx.