Conversations About Aging


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).

13 thoughts on “Conversations About Aging

  1. Heidi Taylor says:

    Thank you so much for this, Jean. Your class visit made such an impact on my students, and they continued to reference it throughout the rest of the semester, even bringing up your perspectives to other guest speakers! In their final reflection papers, many wrote about how often they thought about your positive messages when interacting with older adults their community-engaged projects in local senior living centers. Some students had initially been cynical about your positive comments during your visit, and wrote somewhat sheepishly about how wrong their perceptions about the lives of older adults had been, after spending time getting to know them. One student ended her paper with “Turn out, Professor Potuchek was right!”
    Thanks again.

    • Jean says:

      Thanks, Heidi. You know how much I enjoy doing this sort of presentation. Do you know who the student was who asked the question about the Levy experimental finding? I don’t know if she was one of your students or one of Rachel’s, but I sure would like to find a way to let her know that her question had a big impact on my thinking.

  2. Jean R. says:

    Your last paragraph says what I’ve heard all my life…that showing by example gets better results than telling someone anything. A good Christian, for example, doesn’t have to wear their church on their coat sleeve because people can recognize it when someone is walking the talk. You don’t have to be told when someone loves their profession, etc. Seniors, elders or whatever word you want to use are an interesting group when you dissect how we each face the years we have left. Right now I’m flying really high visualizing my future in a brand new continuing care complex with bells and whistles I never dreamed I could afford.

    • Jean says:

      This is an interesting perspective, Jean, but I’m not sure how far I’m willing to extend the principle that showing by example is always better than telling. I can think of many situations where explicit communication is quite effective. (Of course, as a teacher, I probably have some bias toward the power of explicit instruction.) I remember a therapist telling me many years ago that, in relationships, it is usually better to tell the other person what you would like from them rather than just modeling that behavior and waiting for them to figure it out. I guess the trick for me will be figuring out when explicit communication is the best path and when demonstration by example is superior.

  3. DA Vick says:

    I too recall being divorced in my early 40’s, and after some adjustments realized I was so much a happier, healthier person being single. However, I allowed myself to be matched repeatedly by friends who thought surely I could not possibly be happy alone. I think in today’s environment people are much more honest about their personal needs and not nearly as concerned about fitting in with what other’s think. I do feel sad for those of us who are unable to reap the rewards of maturity.

    • Jean says:

      DA Vick, I think it took me while to realize that I was happy alone, so powerful was the message that happy and alone were opposites. As I get older, one of the challenges for me is remembering that what works for me does not necessarily work for everyone else. (Some people really are unhappy when they are alone.)

  4. Wendy Fisch says:

    Hi Jean. I admire your resourcefulness,and determination to make the most of what life hands you. Growing old ain’t so bad if you consider the alternative. Allen and I have been married for 47 years now. I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about the DNA of marriage. The things that annoyed each other when we were newlyweds still annoy us, but at this point we need to think about what happens to the partner who will one day be left behind. It’s a bigger adjustment than just being glad I won’t have to stumble over his size 13’s anymore if I lose the bet and I am the last one standing.

    • Jean says:

      It’s good to hear from you, Wendy. I agree that having seriously considered the alternative (which both you and I were forced to do by cancer) provides a more positive view of aging. But not everyone reacts that way. One of the people in my Senior College class who was most negative about aging was a woman who had survived three different cancers.
      Wow, 47 years! I guess that means Alex is in his forties now. It seems like yesterday that he was a winsome little boy taking advantage of my visit for a trip to Disneyland. I can only begin to imagine what a huge adjustment it is to live every day without the partner with whom one has spent most of a lifetime.

  5. Charles Emmons says:

    Jean, thank you for this great piece. Last night Penelope and I saw Judy Collins at Chautauqua. I also saw her 2 years ago in Gettysburg. My point is not that she is incredible at 80, as great as ever, but that she takes advantage of what she has and stays busy and creative not just in music.

  6. Diana Studer says:

    The implicit positive comes across on your blog – works for me.
    I remember 10 years ago when you had time to dedicate to blogging.

    • Jean says:

      Thanks, Diana. 10 years ago, I was on sabbatical from teaching and immersing myself in blogging and in the Blotanical community partly as an escape from the challenges of my mother’s final illness.

      I keep promising to get back to regular blogging, but I seem to be having trouble following through. This post was a particularly long time in gestation because it was hard to write. (I think I have trouble admitting that I was wrong. 😉 )

  7. ccbarr says:

    I am finally feeling comfortable in my own skin now. In fact I’m having fun!

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

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