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Any Way You Approach It, ‘Elderhood’ Is a Stage of Life

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Question: I appreciate and enjoy your positive approach to aging. Yet, every morning when I get up, I am reminded that I’m 60 years old.  Once upon a time I would jump out of bed, put on my running shoes and go for a long run. Now, I have to make the decision – shall I hit the gym and use the treadmill for a short while and,  if I have any energy left, lift weights, or just get ready for work?  That’s not very positive. Unfortunately, my motto has been, “Anything worth doing is worth doing to excess.”  Your thoughts? 

Answer: You are not alone in questioning the use of the term “positive” to describe aging.

At a conference I attended recently on Positive Aging, noted geriatrician, author and advocate Dr. William Thomas suggested that something is vitally wrong if we have to add a modifier to a common term such as “aging.”  Adding “positive,” he said, “indicates that aging is bad.”  And such language, he added, “can send false hopes.”

Furthermore, he stated that we assume aging is just an older person attempting to look, act and think like a younger person.  This is wrong, he said.  Although not fully accepted, he refers to the latter phase of life as “elderhood,” rather than an extended period of adulthood.

Our problem, he noted, begins when we destroy the period of childhood.  We require children to learn so they can perform on standardized tests; we over-schedule and regulate their lives; we encourage them to adopt adult behaviors too early in their young lives, such as praising them when they dress like grown ups. We destroy the “protected space before adulthood.”

Consequently, adulthood as a time of “independence, strength, energy, power, to-do lists, authority and prestige” starts too early.  And then we believe that adulthood lasts forever and that aging successfully is when we “look, talk and walk like a younger person.”

Rather than thinking of older age as a period of extended adulthood, we should consider elderhood as a stage of life. The ease with which one moves into this stage varies:

Denialists: According to Thomas, this group includes all of us.  We cannot live in an ageist society, he said, without denying aging.  These are people who won’t say they are  aging because of the negative connotation. A 70-year old senator was overhead saying, “We have to do something about those ‘old’ people.”

Realists: These are the folks interested in everything that can do to fight aging such as taking calcium, vitamin D and fish oil supplements; going on 2-mile runs; drinking one-glass of red wine daily; and allocating their assets so they can have financial security. They focus on brain health, civic engagement and encore careers.  They understand they are aging and resist it.  I might add that what Thomas calls resistance is often part of healthy living and an opportunity to reinvent and reinvigorate.

Enthusiasts: They “get it” and are “willing to explore undiscovered country.”   They are not sure what is good or bad about aging, but are ready to enter elderhood and excited about the adventure.

Perhaps what Thomas is suggesting is that some changes that come with age which are germane to the life stage, and that we should honor those changes, embrace them and call the life stage “elderhood.”

In addition to losses, such as not being able to run long distances, it is important to acknowledge that there are gains as part of a long life.

Hopefully we all will be idealists and enthusiasts, leading a healthy lifestyle and embracing our future into the later years.

Thank you for your good question.  Perhaps your “excess” can be transformed into just being the best you can be – without negative consequences.   Keep exercising at the gym, consider taking a brisk walk at the beach – and enjoy the journey into elderhood.

Copyright Helen Dennis 2009.  All rights reserved

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