Let's Take Tarnish Off Golden Years

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Rampant ageism in our society ignores the fact most seniors today are still healthy, educated and productive

By Lillian Zimmerman, Special To The Vancouver SunApril 24, 2013

Very recently I had a phone call from my financial adviser, who is with a major financial institution and has advised me for a number of years.

He was prompted by an email he received from his superiors inquiring about my mental capacity and wondering if perhaps, given my age (I am an octogenarian), I required someone appointed with a power of attorney to manage my finances.

My adviser reported this tongue-in-cheek as we are in touch regularly and he knows of my continuing professional activities.

The call was undoubtedly prompted by the mainly negative culture in which we are immersed with respect to population aging, sometimes verging on hysteria. Yes, older women now live to be 83 years and men 79. And yes, by 2031 our aging population could reach 25 per cent, up from the present 13 per cent.

Other societies may have spiked similar aging heights but this is the first time in history that we are aging en masse. This undoubtedly means major challenges, most of which are probably manageable. The response in the media, TV, and articles almost incessantly beat the ageist drums, seeing population aging as a crisis.

The emphasis ranges from the idea that an aging population will threaten our public programs, if not our entire economy. “The Grey Tsunami” or aging as a “time bomb waiting to explode” are by now familiar references.

Here is a headline from the financial section of a Canadian newspaper: “Plan your finances now while you still can.” Another knockout is a current TV ad telling us, “The average Canadian will spend their last 10 years of life in sickness.”

This is utter rubbish, given recent studies expounding a theory of the “compression of morbidity,” meaning it is the last 30 days of life when dying occurs that generates high medical needs and more expensive care.

This view of aging as a calamity establishes what I term a “culture of loss,” the attitudes generated by these negative perspectives. This culture produces common beliefs that aging means decline, dependence and dementia, or at best isolation and depression. Thus older people and aging boomers feel threatened and fearful, as indeed do younger people by this emphasis on deterioration.

A much-needed light shines from a poll conducted by Leger Marketing for the Revera Report on Happiness, released in March.

Far from the current depictions of older people as needy and sorrowful, two highlights emerged: First, older Canadians are among the happiest in the country, with 62 per cent of those over 75 saying they are optimistic about aging and second, that negative stereotypes about aging clearly affect Generations X and Y who come to fear aging.

What is being overlooked by our culture of loss is the term “biological pioneers,” used by the late Betty Friedan to describe those now living longer. Older people who are experiencing longevity are navigating new terrains in ways never experienced before.

Most of us are healthier, better educated and productive both economically and socially. We don’t decline when we turn 65; in fact we continue to develop and create innovative new ways of being older.

These accomplishments are rarely recognized. They include writing, teaching, practising medicine and law, working at jobs later in life, exercising, researching, being artists, philosophizing, making friends, forming new interest groups and being politically engaged.

We are also establishing new intergenerational dynamics given it is now possible for four-plus generations to exist simultaneously. We help our adult children if possible when needed, and certainly grandchildren, if we have any.

This is all aided and abetted by new technologies such as email, the Internet and social media. My own anecdotal experience is that I never anticipated the joys of having adult grandchildren as my friends.

The email my financial adviser received, though well-intentioned, was nevertheless ageism pure and simple, probably based on the culture of loss which the inquirer internalized.

Certainly an aging population means more chronic illness and other strains. However, it is high time for the predominantly negative stereotypes of aging to be replaced by a more balanced “culture of gains” which recognizes and heralds the new experiences of an aging population who are actively contributing toward making the world a better place.

Lillian Zimmerman is a longtime research associate with the Gerontology Research Centre at Simon Fraser University.

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