May is Older Americans Month, a time to consider the issues and challenges that confront our aging population. But there are so many misconceptions about aging, it can be hard to tell fact from fiction.
While it’s true that getting older has its challenges, fixating too much on the problems can prevent us from seeing the positives. Indeed, it is the oldest among us who seem to have figured out that an optimistic attitude can go a long way towards making you feel younger than your chronological age.
One hundred centenarians were recently polled for the annual “UnitedHealthcare 100@100 Survey,” to see what life is really like in the triple-digit age bracket.
Over half of men and women in their hundreds said they didn’t “feel old.” Twenty-five percent claimed that a positive outlook is essential for healthy aging; though they did admit that it became easier for them to adopt an optimistic approach as they got older.
From the mouths of the aging
Celebrities, politicians and health gurus are all quick to offer their perspectives on aging, but the people we should really be seeking insight from are the men and women who actually know what it’s like to be “old.”
People like David Hilfiker, a former physician who was diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Impairment in 2011:
“Just to be clear, I know I’m not elderly in either my mind or body. My wife and I backpack into high mountains, carrying our supplies as we hike for a week. Despite the city traffic, I still bicycle everywhere I go (my overall balance is fine; I just can’t find my feet). I do over thirty push-ups most mornings, and so on. And I still teach, lecture and lead groups well. But in a society that seems to value youth over everything else, it’s a struggle not to feel less-than.
“Mostly it’s the same old problem: I’m still hanging on to a picture of myself from twenty years ago when I was an athlete and could calculate most everyday math problems in my head. As I’ve written in this blog several times before, however, a sure path to unhappiness is to hang on to the self I used to be.
“I’m sixty-nine, my memory is shot, I’m confused from time to time and I stumble over cracks in the sidewalk. And unless I think I’m supposed to be different, I’m fine with it.”
Or Dina Wilcox, a 60-something cancer survivor who, after the death of her husband, decided to move into an NYC apartment with her good friend and fellow widow, Ann Fry:
“Ann and I like to think we are at the ‘low’ side of senior; we’re both vital, working and committed to doing great things in the world. I’m writing my second book. Ann consults and travels to her clients. We have no intention of retiring, but, surely, we both know that there’s no way of knowing what is next.”
Or Marlis Powers, who made the transition to an Independent Living community to make caring for her husband with dementia a bit easier:
“I’m sure you have heard that soldiers in the field resist becoming close to their buddies, the reason being that they either rotate out or worse, become KIA’s.
“We are constantly reminded that we are all in various stages of transition, coming and going at the will of a higher being.
“We look out for each other as much as possible without being intrusive, even joking that we should all have small flags that we raise each morning to assure our neighbors that we have lived to see another day. But we also know that the countdown has begun and our days are numbered.
“New people are occupying the cottages, bringing with them fascinating tales of their youthful days. The latest addition to our neighborhood is the widow of a former US Surgeon General. Our community is home to retired Senators, authors and military service officers, each with their own story.
“We will meet and greet the newbies and relish their stories, but we will try not to care too much.
“The moves are difficult; homes have to be sold and decisions made about what comes next, sometimes at great odds with family members. But like the soldiers, we keep our attachments light, try not to depend too much on each other and keep a wary eye out for signs that things might not be right with our neighbors.
“Transition is inevitable; we all just pray that the transitions will be as easy as possible on us and on our loved ones.”