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BEACON Senior News - Western Colorado

How old is old?

Feb 24, 2022 03:19PM ● By Bonnie McCune

When I was in my 20s and 30s, I figured by the time I reached 60, I’d be decrepit and barely able to take care of myself. 

To my surprise, once I turned 60, I felt no different on the inside than I did when I was much younger. Turns out, I realized mature adults are quite capable of dancing, running political campaigns, debating issues, climbing mountains and writing books (That’s what I’m doing post-retirement). 

But what about the people around me? How do they view me? What about my contemporaries? 

According to the 2019 Aging in America Survey by Parker Health Group, a New Jersey company that provides aging services, younger people continue to define old age at a much younger time than we do. The survey found that baby boomers and the silent generation were far less likely to perceive people to be old by their 70s than Gen Xers (born 1955-1980) and millennials (born 1981-1996). 

So the younger the individual judging us well-seasoned folks, the more they might be thinking, “That guy’s too old to be doing that.”

Hold your tongue! 

Another survey segment had to do with aging and ability. Even though younger folks think 70 is old, it doesn’t mean they think we shouldn’t be active and participating. Well over a majority of Americans felt 80 is not too old to engage in spirited activities that involve risk-taking, including falling in love (88 percent), running a marathon (72 percent), starting a business (69 percent), getting a tattoo (68 percent), even riding a motorcycle (62 percent). 

Baby boomers and the silent generation were a bit more realistic about their ability to do these things at 80, but they all seemed eager not to eliminate the possibilities.

More good news: Over one-third of Americans identify gaining experience and wisdom as upsides of aging, while 30 percent credit time spent with family and friends as benefits. Embracing a new life chapter ranks a distant third on the list (12 percent), followed by getting close to retirement (10 percent). Finally, Americans seem willing to loosen their death grip on gaining wealth and consumer goods (only 1 percent). Maybe they figure if they haven’t become rich by the time they’re old, they might as well give up.

A few surprises percolated at the top. 

The vast majority (88 percent) of respondents expressed at least one age-related fear. 

When asked to choose the top three fears, physical health issues (66 percent) ranked highest among respondents, trailed by mental health issues (59 percent). Running out of money was a top three fear for two in five adults (40 percent), while roughly half as many worry about being lonely (22 percent), being bored (21 percent), or not having the lifestyle they expected (19 percent). Just 13 percent rank losing their physical attractiveness among their three greatest fears related to aging.

Identifying ageism

We hear plenty these days about how racism and sexism can subtly influence people’s thinking, actions, laws and policies. Seniors aren’t exempt, and examples of ageism abound in newspapers, television, movies and social media. 

Americans are evenly split in their views of how the media portrays older people, with 38 percent believing they’re portrayed positively while 36 percent perceive the opposite. This leaves nearly 25 percent with neutral views.

About one-third of respondents have experienced ageism in some form. Discrimination in the workplace has affected more than one in four, but nearly 19 percent say it was because they were too young, while 11 percent referenced being too old. Outside the workplace, one in five has faced harassment or discrimination based on age, which divided into too young (15 percent) and too old (10 percent).

Is every possible example truly ageism? 

Two-thirds of respondents were able to choose at least one example from a list of five as a type of age discrimination. Topping the selections was “Describing minor forgetfulness as a senior moment.” I hear my aging contemporaries use this as an excuse for their behavior quite often. 

Nods were also given to social media campaigns that compare current photos of people to older ones (24 percent), birthday cards that joke about aging (19 percent), and dressing children as centenarians on the 100th day of school (14 percent). Women tend to be more sensitive to these forms of ageism than men.

Will change continue?

Now that many are aware of the subtleties of ageism, will those who took the surveys change the way they think and act in the future? 

One in five responded yes, but millennials and Gen Xers were more inclined than boomers and silents to expect a change in themselves.

It will be interesting to see what occurs as the world around us alters. No doubt the pandemic will impact the results, but will it dampen our satisfaction with life as we grow older? Will an increasingly aging population change our usual perceptions about staying young at heart? Will we begin thinking there are definite age limits to activities we find appropriate? Let’s not forget that views from the old and the young have always been dynamic and viewed from opposite ends of life’s spectrum. 

Lewis Carroll surely knew this 165 years ago when he composed his master inquiry about ageism. It contains insights that are still applicable today.

“You are old, father William,” the young man said,

“And your hair has become very white;

And yet you incessantly stand on your head —

Do you think, at your age, it is right?”

“In my youth,” father William replied to his son,

“I feared it would injure the brain;

But now that I’m perfectly sure I have none,

Why, I do it again and again.”

- Lewis Carroll, “Alice’s Advetures
 in Wonderland”