The realization that you are getting older can come in waves.
You watch movies and point to the actors, saying: “She’s dead. Oh, he’s dead, too.”
Your parents move to a retirement community they call God’s waiting room.
You hear more snap, crackle and pop in your joints than in your breakfast cereal.
In society, youthfulness is glorified and getting older is cast as something to avoid, but as your age increases, your quality of life does not necessarily have to decrease, experts said.
Here are some things you should know:
Most people wouldn’t say that a 38-year-old qualifies, but once you pass the median age of 37.8, you may statistically be considered “old,” said Tom Ludwig, emeritus professor of psychology at Hope College in Holland, Mich.
“The average human life span gained more years during the 20th century than in all prior millennia combined,” he wrote, adding that the average life expectancy in the United States is 79.1.
Dr. Gayartri Devi, a neurologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan, said that your outlook can make a difference.
She recalled a patient who frequently said, “Old age has an ugly face.” The patient died when she was 84.
Another patient, who was 98, told Dr. Devi that when she was younger she looked like the actress Elizabeth Taylor. When the doctor told her that it must be difficult for someone who was once that beautiful to have aged, the patient remonstrated: “What do you mean? Am I not still beautiful?”
That patient is now 100.
Dr. Devi said a patient who died at 101 had told her to try to have a friend “from every decade of life.” He had befriended an array of people, including Dr. Devi’s daughter, who was 12 at the time.
Having friends from multiple generations can help head off the loneliness that can come when others move, die, get sick or are no longer mobile.
“It speaks to an anti-segregation of the aged, maintenance of community, as well as keeping in touch with modern advances to prevent being accused of being an old fogey,” she said.
Many of the problems that adults face as they get older are unrelated to the normal part of aging. The quality of your later life is partly under your control. Choices about lifestyles and behaviors can influence the effects of so-called secondary aging.
Exercise and proper sleeping and eating habits will help your physical health, which will benefit your mental and cognitive health, Mr. Ludwig said.
People should prepare for the later stages of their life as they would starting a family or helping a child gain independence.
Seek financial advice to help adapt to changes in your income and plan for the costs of health care, Mr. Kaplan wrote. Discuss with your family and friends what you expect from old age and what type of lifestyle you desire.
Older adults are generally happier and less stressed and worried than middle-aged and young adults, Mr. Kaplan wrote.
Although there can be declines in health and income, “the vast majority of older adults enjoy improvements in the emotional aspects of life” because they are more focused on positive information, he wrote.
Mr. Ludwig said the reality of aging was not as bad as stereotypes would suggest.
While you might not be able to do all the things you once did when you were younger — he advises against playing tackle football with teenagers, for instance — there are ways you can compensate by finding other activities that are rewarding.
Find something to commit to improving, whether it’s tennis or cabinetry. Mr. Ludwig suggested focusing on helping others, especially younger people.
Remember, too, that you are not the only one feeling sore or slowing down, he said.
“There are millions of Americans waking up with those aches and pains,” Mr. Ludwig said. “What is the alternative to aging? It’s dying young.”
Though it is true that as we age, we may gain some weight and lose some of our intellectual abilities, it is no reason to give in to stereotypes about older adults.
Myths about older people — that they are disconnected or crotchety — are perpetuated in the news media and our culture. Advancements in technology have accelerated the stereotype that older people can’t keep up, Mr. Ludwig said.
Leslie K. Hasche, an associate professor at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work, said she supported AARP’s “Disrupt Aging” initiative, which seeks to counter social and cultural myths about what it means to be old.
“Too often, the myths create barriers or limits, which get in the way of older adults staying connected or pursuing what is meaningful to them,” she wrote in an email.
Various milestones — birthdays, changes in careers and the deaths of siblings and peers — are reminders of the passage of time, but you should not lose focus on finding meaning and quality in life, Mr. Kaplan wrote.
“For many people, old age creeps up slowly and sometimes without fanfare or acknowledgment,” he wrote. “While most people enjoy relative continuity over the decades, being able to adapt to the changing context of our lives is the key to success throughout life.”
Here is another point of view that I do find interesting.
“Weak”, “sick”, “immobile”, “decrepit”, “lonely”, “depressed”. If the prospect of growing old brings thoughts like these to mind, you are not alone. It seems that many people – of all age groups – have a preconceived idea of what being old will be like. And it’s generally not good.
These negative perceptions of ageing are hugely problematic. They can support ageist attitudes, negatively impact on relationships with older adults and cause a deep anxiety about the future. So how do we find ourselves in a position where the later chapters of our life can often feel like a foregone conclusion of deterioration and misery?
The images of ageing that are encountered on a daily basis go some way to explain. Adverts, birthday cards, health information leaflets, even road signs all provide us with clues and cues as to what growing older apparently entails.
We read news stories warning of the burden that “baby boomers” are placing on pension reforms and already stretched healthcare systems.
Stereotypical images are widespread, showing the empty, haunted eyes of the Alzheimer’s patient, or the solitary, lonely figure who sits in the window gazing out wistfully. Loneliness, poverty, neglect and abuse. It’s all there. And these are real issues which need attention and resolutions.
But what’s also needed is much greater acknowledgement and awareness of the diverse ways that people can, and do, grow older. As wise, experienced and knowledgeable elders, volunteering, caring, running marathons, travelling, mentoring, creating, falling in love, pursuing new hobbies and continuing with old ones.
It’s a long list and one that reflects a shift in what can be expected from a now extended middle age (or “third age”), particularly in Western societies. As those birthday cards remind us, “60 is the new 40”.
When it comes to running marathons – and less arduous sporting goals – Research shows clearly that physical activity – walking, swimming, cycling, bowls – can have positive influences on people’s experiences of ageing. It has also shown how physically active older adults can challenge other people’s negative perceptions of ageing.
Of course, people do not need to notch up a list of completed marathons or start pumping iron to loosen the hold of negative stereotypes.
A walk in the park.
Emphasising the many different feelings of pleasure that being physically active can evoke – be it the “exhilaration” of zooming downhill on a bike, cake and coffee with fellow swimmers after a dip in the pool, or the process of documenting a favorite walk – can move discussions of older bodies within the context of physical activity, beyond the current fixation on disease and illness.
In a similar vein, we might stress how in certain physical activity settings (the culture of Parkrun being a perfect example), growing older can bring a sense of liberation. An ability to care a little less about identities developed (or indeed imposed) long ago around “not being the sporty type” and give something a new try.
Rethinking this life stage as a time where new skills, whatever they are, can be learned is helpful. It shifts the focus from loss to ideas of growth, interest, experience and wisdom.
All this is not to champion sport and physical activity – nor those who engage in it – as the cure for all real and perceived social ills that accompany growing older in the 21st century. Being physically active in older age can bring feelings of fulfilment to the lives of many who engage in its numerous forms. It can also act as a site for social change by enabling negative stereotypes of ageing to be challenged.
Striving for different ways of thinking about a life stage involves celebrating diversity, not replacing one damaging story with another.