When I begin to talk about the process of aging — here is what usually happens. People roll their eyes and look down, or sometimes they just sigh and smile at me indulgently.
Maybe you are doing that right now. Perhaps you're even considering moving on to the sports section of this newspaper. Read it later — consider what I am saying — this is about you.
Actually, it's about all of us. Because getting older is the only thing we all hold in common. So, let's be selfish and decide to do it well. It's that simple — I really think so. If we allow it to be.
I have a theory that aging well means you look it in the eye. Embrace it. Everyone I encounter who has done that — educated themselves about aging successfully, stayed active, eaten wisely and laughed long and hard when they recognize their own youth-obsessed vanity — well, they seem younger, more "in charge." In a word — happier.
Research suggests they are measurably happier, and they have a lower risk of heart disease or death from any cause (Archives of General Psychiatry, November 2004)
How different would the late-in-life experience be if we lived in a culture that smiled upon aging instead of resisting and denying it? How different would life be if the aging journey was less focused on medical attentions and procedures, expensive "cures," excessive use of technology and, ultimately, the marginalization of gray-haired elders.
I am not the only one contemplating this. I lifted the ideas above from an article, "The High Cost of Denying Aging," by Dr. Christine Kovach, a professor at the University of Wisconsin. She has worked in nursing-home environments most of her life and seen people at their oldest and sickest.
Here's how she puts it: "Medical advances and preventive care practices have spawned the unrealistic expectation there is a magic bullet for everything that ails us. We deny our own mortality and are psychologically unprepared for illness and threats to survival that come with old age."
Consider how this looks in real life. "I don't have to watch my diet any more, I can eat all the bacon and eggs I want because I have a medication that takes care of my cholesterol." Or maybe it looks like this: "My mom was diabetic, my uncle too — it's inevitable, I guess. Pass the cookies over here again, will you?"
I made a pact with myself a few years ago. I promised I would not let aging "just happen" to me. I wanted to stay informed and be an active participant in the process of getting older. "Ever learning" was my declared motto.
And so I try. I look for information and insight everywhere. There's a book that's become useful to me, "Optimal Aging: Get Over Getting Old." One chapter heading says it all, "The ABCs for Optimal Living: You Mainly Feel the Way You Think." There's another publication, "When Gray is Golden" (love that title). It's a marketing and business treatise — and focuses on selling to seniors — but it has the right attitude.
Ever learning. Always aging. Join me, will you? Let's choose to be golden.
Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 776-7371, Ext. 210.