What do you mean by ‘feeling old’? It’s a phrase I’ve mindlessly uttered many times, and maybe you have too.
When you say, ‘I don’t feel old,’ what do you mean? How do you think the majority of old people feel? How would you know?
Do you mean: I don’t feel useless, unappreciated, dissatisfied or helpless?
Or: I don’t feel useful, valued, satisfied or in control of my destiny?
Do you mean: I don’t feel ugly, weak, tired, in pain or ill?
Or: I don’t feel sufficiently attractive, strong, comfortable or healthy?
Do you mean: I don’t feel depressed, frightened, lonely or grumpy?
Or: I don’t feel contented, confident, supported or serene?
Do you mean: I don’t feel stupid, incompetent, useless or dull?
Or: I don’t feel intelligent, capable, productive, creative or mature?
You’ve just done a little bit of consciousness raising
Just by reading those alternatives, maybe you were surprised by your own assumptions. Jeepers, I certainly was! Who knew this dyed-in-the-wool Pollyanna was sitting on such an evil job-lot of stereotypes?
But don’t beat yourself up for that: ageism has been drummed into us our entire lives. So it’s difficult to drop those stereotypes when eventually we ourselves qualify as numerically old. It’s difficult even when research shows that the stereotypes are far from justified.
For myself, I’m going to stop using the phrase ‘feeling old’, because it’s drowning in a swamp of negativity that can never drain away.
Negative or positive stereotype — who cares?
Abandoning the concept of ‘feeling old’ is not just an empty idealistic gesture. It’s a practical step towards better happiness and health. By holding on to the conventional view of old age (lonely, dotty, pathetic…) we do ourselves real, measurable harm, mentally, physically and emotionally.
In test after test, researchers are finding that if we think about getting older in terms of decline or disability, our health likely will suffer. If, on the other hand, we see aging in terms of opportunity and growth, our bodies respond in kind.
Anne Tergesen in the Wall Street Journal: To age well, change how you feel about aging
The value of developing a positive image of aging
So there’s one incentive to change our negative view of aging: real benefits accrue.
The other incentive is for our own self respect. If we despise old people, this means despising ourselves as we get older. We'll look in the mirror one day and see a sad, lonely, pathetic, useless stranger. That won't be much fun. A negative stereotype becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: science has proven this.
Reading Anne Tergesen has reinforced my decision to carry on with my own boot camp for the bonus years. At times I have wavered — as in, Rachel, this is ludicrous — what were you thinking?! But a great deal of research now insists that there’ll be a decent pay-off for sorting out my own conflicted views about aging.
Watch this space: I will become a galactic beacon of tolerance, no, of enthusiasm for old age! Bring it on!
How splendidly selfish of me. I’ve been talking here in purely personal terms. But it's practical and honest to start the de-agistifying process with our own prejudices: how else can we change attitudes in society? I hope it’s true that one person’s newly positive view of aging can only benefit other individuals and communities.
Luckily it is possible to root out toxic stereotypes and replace them with more positive expectations. I’ll investigate some systems later, because I need them myself. Meantime, if you know how to switch from negative to positive, please advise!
Image from 'The art of beautifying suburban home grounds of small extent' by Frank J. Scott, 1881. Public domain.
And if that's a suitable tree for a suburban home ground of small extent, like my back yard, I'll eat my hat.