June 20, 2019 by Jean
It will come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog that I am enjoying my experience of aging. I credit this to a combination of factors: A cancer diagnosis with a lousy prognosis at age fifty meant that I didn’t expect to get to this age, and I am grateful for the opportunity. My basic personality also tends toward looking on the bright side, which inclines me to emphasize the positive aspects of this stage of life. This has not been at all hard, because I am finding my life in retirement very rich and full.
It has been borne in on me recently, however, that my positive view of aging is not always shared by my peers. I have had conversations with two different friends in which they emphasized their negative experiences of aging, and a family member told me that she and her friends are all agreed that “Aging Sucks.” In the spring, I took a six-week course called “Six Conversations About Aging” at the Senior College. I read the book for the course, Parker Palmer’s On the Brink of Everything, before classes began, and it resonated with my own experiences of and attitudes toward aging. The instructor for the course also displayed a positive outlook on aging. But negative views seemed to predominate among members of the class. During the first class, we were divided into small groups to compile a list of positive and negative aspects of aging, and I found myself the only person in my group contributing any positive items. I was dismayed by the amount of ageism present among my classmates whose ages ranged from 63 to 88. I learned to avoid being in small-group discussions with two women who objected on principle to anyone or anything ever being described as “old;” their assumption that “old” is bad and “young” is good drove me crazy.
I am aware of the research findings that attitudes about aging are a self-fulfilling prophecy (see Paradoxes of Aging, Health, and Happiness); even after researchers control for factors like underlying health conditions, those with positive attitudes are healthier and happier and have longer, richer lives than those with negative attitudes. I want my peers to enjoy the benefits of positive attitudes, and I respond to negative attitudes with an over-zealous insistence on the positive. In the Senior College class, I relentlessly emphasized the positive and challenged classmates’ negative views of aging. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that this wasn’t a successful strategy. Rather than changing their own attitudes, my classmates just felt badgered by me or as if their own experiences of aging were not being respected. I was particularly chagrined during the last class discussion when a classmate whom I like and respect commented that she almost didn’t come back after the first week because the positive cheerleading attitude in her small group (that was me) was so out of whack with her own negative experiences of aging.
Two days after the last meeting of the Senior College class, I gave a two-hour presentation on aging to a class of undergraduate students at Bates College (arranged by a former student of mine who is on the faculty there). Similar to my presentation to the Occupational Therapy students earlier in the year (see Resisting Ageism Through Education), this was a stereotype-busting presentation of research about health and happiness among elders followed by readings from the journal I kept last year about aging independently. During the discussion that followed, one student asked about the implications of a research finding by Becca Levy and her research team at Yale showing that subliminal positive messages about aging had a much greater impact on the health and attitudes of elders than did explicit positive messages.
As soon as the student asked the question, I realized that my attempts to challenge the negative attitudes toward aging of my peers were like those explicit positive messages in the Levy experiment – not very effective. I think the equivalent in real life of the subliminal messages in the study are the background assumptions about age and aging that permeate our culture. This means that my stereotype-busting presentations to young people about aging are a productive approach because they challenge those cultural assumptions. But the same approach won’t work with my age peers – no matter how much I want them to reap the benefits of a positive attitude toward aging.
I think I can learn something here from my experience of being a single woman in my thirties and forties. Within a few years after I was divorced in my early thirties, I realized that I thrived on solitude and living alone and was not likely to marry again. But the culture assumed that no one wanted to be single and that the goal of any normal, healthy single woman was to become un-single as quickly as possible. I did not spend a lot of time verbally challenging those cultural assumptions, but I did make a point of being a visibly happy single woman. Years later, a friend told me that when a post-divorce relationship that she had hoped would lead to a second marriage broke up, she looked to me as a positive model of living as a single woman and that having that model made a difference in her life. I need to stop telling other elders to be more positive (an explicit message) and instead quietly model a positive approach to aging (an implicit message).