Aging well is something we all want to do. Why would anyone not want to do something well, especially something that we all hope to do – keep living for a while?
However, aging well is a loaded term. What does “well” mean? As many have pointed out, when people talk about aging well, it often means not actually aging.
What aging well is not
The idea of aging well can really just be another form of ageism. But it doesn’t have to be. Here are some common themes that come with aging well that we could do without:
- Looking young – Aging well often means maintaining youth in term of appearance or certain physical skills. It means being judged by physical appearance and ability. Must we be that shallow or is there something more to aging?
- Exceptionalism – Who is aging well? Articles like this celebrate those stay youthful looking, via diet, exercise, surgery, and/or good genes. So much of this is sexist and classist, with women held to impossible standards that only well-off people can achieve. Sunspots and wrinkles and extra weight are signs of bad character, no exceptions or context.
- Competition – Aging well pits us against an external standard and against each other. We know whether we are aging well by comparing ourselves with the young or with others our age. Worst of all, this is a losing battle. We chase the impossible, and it takes more and more effort the longer we live.
- Control – The idea of aging well also implies a level of control that we do not have. This is not at all to say that we are helpless. Far from it. We can do a lot of things that can help us be healthy, but we will all face circumstances beyond our control. When aging well is seen as maintaining youthful appearance and abilities, it cuts out many people, who, by this definition, will not age well.
- Self-centeredness – Anti-aging efforts are not usually focused on accepting and appreciating what we have. They keep us focused on ourselves and what we are not. They distract us from what will really make us happy and engaged.
Older age is not just decline
Aging inevitably involves decline and many other challenges, but that is not all that it is. It is a new stage of life, one that looks very different for each person and one that now is longer and healthier than ever before.
Aging well is about more than looking a certain way. Looking young is for the young. Nothing wrong with that. There is also nothing wrong with looking one’s age. Some of those wrinkles came from laughter that no one would trade. Some were earned from grief and hard times that have made us wiser and stronger.
The story needs to be rewritten. We generally think of people as having a prime and then anything after that is a decline. That story is life as a bell curve. It leaves a lot out. We are really at our prime for different things at different times, and some do not come until older age. Plus, we all learn and grow differently. Older people are not adults past their prime, but humans in another unique life stage.
Time to harvest what we’ve sewn
“For the unlearned, old age is winter; for the learned, it is the season of the harvest.” The Talmud
Our highest wisdom may come just in time to handle the challenges of old age. However, it also enables us to enjoy life and to contribute to society in ways we could not do before. Now that many of us are also living longer with this wisdom, we have the chance to do more than just survive old age.
We are unnecessarily limiting ourselves if all we really want from aging is to age physically as little as possible. It is time to take stock of everything we are. Truly aging well is appreciating what aging has given us and doing something with it. In the new year, let’s actually age well – respecting and valuing what we’ve learned and sharing it with others.
Sara Breindel, Changing the Narrative blogger