March 18, 2015

Old Age (Even Very Old Age): Embracing the Idea, Enjoying the Reality

You can’t escape them -- all the books, commercials, and websites that make us think of aging as something to be “corrected.”

Happily, we also see efforts to help us think of aging as something to be embraced.

A site I visit often is Changing Aging (“Exploring Life Beyond Adulthood”). As the name suggests, it has a pro-aging philosophy, not an anti-aging one. Geriatrician Dr. Bill Thomas is the principal blog author, and his commentaries over the past several years have helped reset my own orientation as a pro-aging advocate.

Another site I love is Time Goes By, a blog -- thoughtful and often humorous  -- written with verve. Ronni Bennett creates the content, and I look forward to her daily posts popping into my inbox. She, too, has little patience for all the anti-aging foolishness.

If you’re not familiar with these sites, I heartily recommend a visit.

Growing Old with Grace
Not long ago, Ronni wrote a piece titled "Growing Old with Grace." In the excerpt below, she describes how we make old age a wonderful place:
What makes any- and everyone beautiful in old age is acceptance of their years, of themselves as they are. 
After about 60, it is a victory of sorts just to awaken in the morning. We can face each new day with sadness for our lost youth or with joy for our luck at reaching this time of life. It's a personal choice. 
We eagerly said farewell to childhood when adolescence beckoned and goodbye to that stage of life when adulthood was upon us. It is a mistake – one of monumental proportions, I believe – to cling to adulthood when age arrives. 
Instead, when we accept the losses age imposes on us – youth, physical power, our position in society – say yes to old age, open ourselves to its mysteries and live every day in the present tense with passion and an open heart, we can't help but experience this time as an opportunity for happiness, fulfillment, joy and in time, serenity. 
In moving on from adulthood, we allow ourselves to grow into new dimensions of life and we get a chance at completion.

It’s easy to like Ronni’s message, and easy to agree with it.

The Beauty of Very Old Age
As I reviewed some files recently, I came upon a story that appeared last year in The New York Times. Author Phyllis Korkki titled it “Get to 100 and Life Actually Doesn’t Feel So Bad.” In fact, the article suggests it can feel very good indeed.

The article reviews the work of Daniela S. Jopp, an assistant psychology professor at Fordham University, who seeks to understand how people actually feel as they approach 100.

Jopp understands that many people – probably a majority – have a negative view of very old age. She knows people want to have long lives, but they don’t want to become “very old,’ because of those pervasive negative stereotypes.

Based on her studies of elderly residents of Heidelburg, Germany, and of very old New Yorkers she identified through voter registries and nursing homes, Jopp describes a different take on very old people.

Korkki wrote:
Her [Jopp’s] research gives cause for hope: It shows that once people approach 100, they tend to have a very positive attitude toward life. This is the case even though “they have on average between four and five illnesses, which are pretty disabling and hinder them from doing the things they want to do,” Professor Jopp said. They still have goals, she said, and they are not ready to die just yet. They want to see how the Yankees fare next season or attend the wedding of a grandchild.

Satisfaction Levels Rise with Age
According to her studies of these very old subjects, Jopp found that people 95 and up report greater levels of satisfaction with life than people who are decades younger. People in their 60s and 70s may not yet have come to grips with their developing impairments, while the very old have learned to accept them.

Let’s be real: Jopp studied only those old people who could meet with her and answer questions about their lives; many other 95-year-olds, confined to beds and wheelchairs or languishing in dementia-care facilities, wouldn’t have that choice.

Sill, among her very old subjects, Jopp found little evidence of cognitive decline, both in Heidelburg and New York City. Her subjects also lived together in communities, which provided the kind of stimulating socialization so important to happiness and contentment.

Louis Solomon, a 99-year-old New Yorker thinking about all the losses he’s experienced and contemplating his own death, said: “It’s devastating when you think about it, but it’s natural. You have to accept that you’re not going to live forever. You take it in stride and don’t let it get you down.”

Growing Old with Mom and Dad 
Because life expectancy is increasing, Jopp describes something that now happens more and more: children and parents aging together.

Jopp hopes her research will serve several purposes:
  • Help discover ways to provide better social services for very old people, and
  • Create new avenues for the very old to share their insight and knowledge with others.

But Jopp’s studies do something else, too: provide a positive, even upbeat, assessment of what very old age can be – a joyful and fulfilling time.


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