Yesterday I had a chance encounter with an elder I had not met previously. I was in her retail establishment, and as part of a casual conversation I mentioned “enlightened” in terms of growing older. She scoffed at my use of that term. It was a head-bobbing, grinning-slightly scoff but I understood her feelings about aging immediately. And in case I had not fully absorbed them, she told me emphatically, “There is nothing good about getting old.”
This woman’s overall appearance made her a credible source of information. She was gray-headed with a myriad of wrinkles across her face and neck. But there was no cane or walker in evidence; she had, in fact, very erect posture, a sparkle in her eyes and an eagerness to socially engage. I would describe her as a beautiful ager. Why did she not see herself like that?
In our brief encounter she seemed to well represent the “Eight Challenges of Aging” as put forth by the Milken Institutes Center for the Future of Aging (www.nextavenue.org). As illustration, there was a demonstrated sense of Engagement and Purpose (Challenge No. 1).
She appeared to be the owner of the clearly thriving little shop I was in, which suggests she had also addressed Challenge No. 2 (Financial Wellness).
Her “Mobility and Movement” (Challenge No. 3) were impressive. She trekked around the little store like a woman who was decades younger than an age of 80-something.
“Daily Living and Lifestyle” (Challenge No. 4) were well represented by the fact it was midday and she was working in the store and not at home in her recliner with the television on.
It was impossible to get a feel for Challenges 5 and 6, “Caregiving” and “Care Coordination,” but if she had an ill and dependent partner, that might explain having any less-than-positive spirit.
Challenge No. 7 (“Brain Health”) was notably present in her witty remarks. Challenge No. 8 (“End of Life”) was impossible to determine, of course, in such a short give and take. I may need to go back to that store and talk with her some more.
I would like to challenge further the idea there is “nothing good” about being old. Aging expert Marc Agronin —although he is only 52 years old) — does that in his book “The End of Old Age.” He directs the reader to shed commonly held negativism about aging and look at it as “a badge of honor and distinction” and a “precious part of life.”
And many do. There’s a yoga instructor in New York who’s approaching 100 and wears her age with meditative acceptance and unswerving positivism. And a world-acclaimed Guinness record-holding female body builder, now in her 80s who embraces getting older with a strong faith and a regular exercise routine.
There’s a 98-year-old baker in Hastings, Nebraska, who sees aging as precious. He started baking at age 92, after his wife died. He gives away everything he bakes “to friends, to hospice volunteers, to others in need of food and kindness.” It is referred to as “the power of pie and purpose.”
Beautiful aging indeed.
Sharon Johnson is an associate professor emeritus, Oregon State University, and the author of “How Gray in My Valley: Enlightened Observations About Being Old.” Reach her at Sharon@agefriendlyinnovators.org