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'Our only real home is our bodies'

Today I am borrowing from two sources that captivated me this week.

The first reference is an online article titled “3 Women on What They’ve Learned in Their 70+ Years of Life.” The second is an essay in a publication called Generations, which I receive quarterly because I am a member of The American Society on Aging. The membership cost has become a bit steep for our retirement income, but the quality of the published materials is amazing. Maybe I could put it like this: I read it so you don’t have to.

Let’s start with the premise that we all age. Women usually do it longer.

And some women older than 70 do it with a particular flair. One of the interviewed women in the “3 Women” article said something that resonated with me: “Our only real home is our bodies … make it a good place to be.”

The article in Generations was more research-based but equally compelling and directive. The entire publication was about gender and age; the writers that caught my attention, Berridge and Martinson, talked about “ableism,” a term I’d encountered previously but not given much thought. The word suggests we “define and uplift the older adult who is not disabled.” We laud the active, productive elder for “not looking her age.”

But the reality is that only 12 percent of people 65 and older meet the long-held criteria for “successful aging.” The authors of the Generations article, “Valuing Old Age Without Leveraging Ableism,” suggest the way society thinks about aging may have become a trap. The long-accepted three-pronged criteria for aging well are: avoidance of disease and disability; maintenance of physical and cognitive function; and effective and sustained social engagement. If not a trap — a higher bar than most can meet.

According to the National Council on Aging, 80 percent of people older than 64 have at least one chronic condition (diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis — the list is long), and 60 percent of people older than 64 have at least two chronic conditions. Cancer is now often considered a chronic condition. This is not necessarily a bad thing if we recognize, accept and manage it as our situational truth.

Also, 32 percent of people older than 85 will have substantial issues with cognitive impairment, according to Alzheimer’s experts. And then you might as well throw in the fact that social isolation is epidemic. Again — this is our reality. Let’s look it in the eye. Prevent what we can, and accept and boldly manage what we must.

Getting older involves disease and disability. If we do not meet the established “successful aging” criteria, we are not “failures.” One researcher refers to the concept of “brilliant imperfection” as a way of valuing self and circumstance. I like that.

We definitely need new criteria and policies that recognize a social rather than medical model for successful aging. Until that occurs, let’s remember, my dearest aging peers, that our “only real home is our bodies … make it a good place to be.”

— Sharon Johnson is an associate professor emeritus at Oregon State University and the executive director of Age-Friendly Innovators Inc. Reach her at Sharon@agefriendlyinnovators.org.