Five Ways to Interact with Aging
Something is happening at this moment in time that has never happened before. No, it has nothing to do with the changing landscape in media, or even the changing climate, though both of those two points are super interesting; no, this has everything to do with humans aging. It’s actually pretty simple: people are now living well into their 80s and 90s. Think about the life expectancy from decades and even centuries past: it’s pretty common knowledge that people just didn’t live that long in the past, due to diseases, living conditions, women dying in childbirth, etc. Currently, the U.S Census Bureau estimates that nearly 15 percent of the current population in the United States is over the age of 65, and that by the year 2050, almost 1 in 4 individuals will belong to this age group. We are truly living in a new era.
However, despite these numbers, we have a deeply ingrained, cultural habit of privileging younger individuals over older persons through the stories that we represent, the bodies that we value, and the relationships that we cultivate. Think about reality shows based on the lives of the rich and sort-of famous; think about what the rich do to try and achieve a youthful-looking appearance. These practices isolate older persons, especially those without the means or desires to surgically enhance parts of themselves, making these folks all but invisible, denying them the cultural space to express and process their experiences at a time of life that comparatively few humans have ever witnessed.
One of the most powerful ways we can respond to our culture’s devaluation of older individuals is to examine and adjust our own attitudes towards aging. Here are five simple ways to interact with aging:
Acknowledge yourself as an aging person. Typically, aging is something we admit to once a year, often with considerable shame, secretiveness, and anxiety. Think about it: how many times have you uttered the words, “I hate my birthday”? Hating a birthday is more common than one may think; while billed as a celebration, it is a reminder that we are aging each and every moment. But that’s a beautiful thing, and by acknowledging ourselves as constantly aging beings, we can bring care and presence to this experience, and remove the stigma associated with getting older.
Examine how you value different ages. Take a brief moment to think about your life 10 years ago. How have your experiences over the last decade changed how you think about where or who you “should” be at your current age? Would the younger version of yourself be happy with where you are now? Through this reflection, we can observe how we value and define success at different ages, and realize that our attitudes towards aging are within our control.
Interact with older persons throughout your day. As you move through your daily routine, pause and intentionally notice the older persons that share your coffee shops, grocery stores, places of work, etc. If you have the opportunity, greet them, ask them how they’re doing, and try to have a casual and genuine interaction. You may notice that you have some discomfort talking with an older individual, and it is valuable to lean into this discomfort.
Consider how you currently interact with older people. One of the most common ways that we access and interact with older individuals is through simply showing up. We can interact with older adults in our everyday lives. See an older person at a coffee shop? Say hello! It’s also important we make efforts to interact with Elders at senior communities. Having lunch at your local senior center, or hanging out with residents at your local nursing home are great places to start! It’s important for us to reflect on how we approach these opportunities and the attitudes we bring into the lives and spaces of the folks we serve, ensuring that we always treat older persons as full, complete humans, and not as a requirement to fulfill for work, school, or even to bolster our own egos.
Pay attention to how aging and older persons are represented in various media forms. As you have more casual interactions with older individuals in your community, adjust the associations that you have with each age - whether positive or negative - and come more into an awareness of yourself as a continually aging being. Think about how the aging process is represented in television, commercials, film, photographs, and more. This process, when combined with the reflective and investigative practices suggested here, is one of the most effective ways to notice how our culture trains us to devalue and overlook older persons and experience the aging process as one of degradation and shame.
Once we’re able to redefine our views, thoughts, and ingrained opinions on aging, then we can truly create intergenerational interactions that affect not only the lives of elders, but transform our own aging experiences as well.
What are some interactions you have had recently with older adults that you found meaningful? Let us know in the comments!