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FAITH + IDEAS =: last updated 10/08/2009


The Privilege of Growing Older

September 23, 2009                                           Volume 2 Issue 14
 . . . an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College . . .

By Sean Clark

Let’s face this head on: we’re all getting older. It’s unavoidable. In fact, by the time you finish reading this, you’ll be a few minutes older—and hopefully wiser—than when you began.

Why, then, do we want to avoid the topic? Maybe it’s because we live in a youth-oriented culture, which too often defines the process of aging with terms like useless, dependent or incapable. Or maybe it’s because we don’t think enough about what aging really means, and why it matters. Why, in fact, it is a privilege and not a burden.

So instead of re-considering it, we tend to stay trapped in denial. We view other people—our gray haired neighbor, our boss or pastor—as old, or at least older. We, though, aren’t even close to that category. Since evidence shows that Boomers (now in their fifties or sixties and comprising one of the largest demographics in the country) plan to stay involved and engaged with their work, families and communities longer, it’s not hard to understand why we say others—but not us—are ‘getting up there in years.’

After all, most of us have watched relatives approach their twilight years with deteriorating bodies and capacities. Grandpa moves slower, Uncle Joe can’t do what he used to, Mom forgets things more. Maybe they’ve entered retirement with the attitude that they can now slow down; they’ve earned it. But in the process they often become disengaged or self-absorbed, and it seems as if they’re just passing the time. They gradually lose their independence, and we watch . . . with the unspoken fear that this will happen to us.

The negative connotations associated with this perspective only perpetuate the stereotypes—and with detrimental effects. Recent research indicates that older adults who accept these negative aging stereotypes and are repeatedly exposed to them often cultivate poor self-confidence, decline in physical function, cognitive performance and health status. In other words, a pattern of negative attitudes and poor physical habits only accelerates the decline we don’t want to face.

That’s where the privilege comes in. A positive approach to aging shrugs off the burden of getting old passively and embraces the privilege of growing older actively. A number of positive impacts result from such a shift in thinking and action: physical and cognitive health, longevity, social well being, and most importantly, on-going contributions to the lives of others.

How do we nurture this perceptive of aging as a gift or a privilege? It started a few minutes ago when you began reading this. You took a step toward keeping your mind active. We make other personal choices as well that enhance our lives through habits of aerobic exercise, cultural awareness, community service, and spiritual engagement. Each is a crucial component to creating a whole quality of life. As one social scientist put it, “the way in which people interpret and make sense of aging is critical to their continued growth.”

As the International Council on Active Aging sponsors Active Aging Week this week (September 21-26), the college where I teach will host a variety of events (www.gordon.edu/balance). Each activity helps us—no matter our age—to consider the many facets we need to strive for wellness, to age gracefully and to grow older in a way that we model for others what we’d want them to embrace.

The way my own 89-year old grandmother has for me, who learned long ago to celebrate the gift of aging each day of her life.  A few months ago, she and I sat in our vegetable garden picking green beans. Twenty years before, she’d worked more quickly, bending at the waist to gather beans or squatting to find those hidden close to the ground. She shared with me then—as she did now— the importance of picking regularly to ensure multiple harvests.

Yes, she was showing signs of aging now—she moved slowly and needed to sit on a bath stool as she picked. But her smile through each movement indicated a pleasure that transcended the years. As I watched this beautiful woman, I was reminded that her health and wellness were not confined to her age or medical diagnoses. And that was a privilege indeed.

Dr. Sean Clark is associate professor of kinesiology, and the research and education director at the Gordon College Center for Balance, Mobility and Wellness. He lives with his wife Donna and their two sons in Barrington, NH.

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Dr. Sean Clark