October 6, 2004

Our Fears of Aging Become Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

It shouldn't be surprising that two recent studies show Healthy Aging Requires Healthy Attitudes or seniors with more positive emotions less likely to become frail. John Milton wrote, "The mind is its own place, and in itself, can make heaven of Hell, and a hell of Heaven." Acting happy can make you happy writes David Myers.

In fact, a positive attitude effects all age groups. It may be that positive emotions impact the chemical and nerve responses governing the body's healthy balance as some researchers suggest. And it may be that positive attitudes affect the way we see and experience the world. Just as having high expectations of children results in better school performance, treating older people as competent and productive adults actually helps them perform that way. Too many think aging is a problem instead of a natural part of life. Instead of treating the elderly as regular people with the respect due their accumulated wisdom, too many treat them condescendingly in the unforgettable words of Ronni Bennett as "wrinkled children".

Just how much the mental stereotypes we hold can affect our lives can be seen in Fear of aging. Fear of aging ,speeds the very decline we dread according to a series of studies by psychologists Ellen Langer of Harvard and University of Pennsylvania President Judith Rodin. Our collective negative stereotypes of aging, in particular the idea that aging brings about memory loss, lead to "decreased effort, less use of adaptive strategies, avoidance of challenging situations, and failure to seek medical attention for disease-related symptoms." By contrast, in China the elderly are revered for their wisdom; aging itself is seen as positive and active. When groups of elderly Chinese and elderly Americans were compared against each other and then with younger people on memory retention, the older Chinese did so well even the researchers were surprised. They concluded that the results can be explained entirely by their positive images of aging.

Stephan Rechtschaffen, founder of the Omega Institute says our denial of aging has its costs and it's not just our elders who suffer. He quotes Erik Erikson, "Lacking a culturally viable ideal of old age, our civilization does not really harbor a concept of the whole of life."

So how do we change the negative stereotypes we all hold? Maybe it's just a whole-hearted embrace of the aging process as a natural part of life. Ronni Bennett does just that in Time Goes By when she writes about a kind of enrichment that is unavailable to youth, the "depth and dimension new events acquire when they are informed by memories of past experience. Once again, as he seems always to be, Shakespeare is right: “The past is prologue” - the backstory prepares us for and increases appreciation of the present."

Fortunately, it's the boomers who are now becoming older. Once they get over the fact, they are no longer young and can't compete on that ground, they will revolutionize attitudes about aging, just as they did about sex, music, food and feminism. I'm beginning to hear voices like Annie LaMott,

    My Aunt Gertrude is 85 and leaves us behind in the dust when we hike. Look, my feet hurt some mornings, and my body is less forgiving when I exercise more than I'm used to. But I love my life more, and me more. I'm so much juicier. And, like that old saying goes, it's not that I think less of myself, but that I think of myself less often. And that feels like heaven to me.

Posted by Jill Fallon at October 6, 2004 11:23 AM | Permalink