Do you think of yourself as young, middle-aged, or old? If you are over 50, you might choose middle-aged. If you are over 65, you’d probably reject them all as arbitrary and irrelevant.
In ancient Rome, teenagers were middle-aged, with a life expectancy of 29. In the early 1900s, we lived until the ripe old age of 49. Today our average lifespan is 79, pushing 99.
Old age is generally thought to begin at retirement, around 65, when our government pensions kick-in. It’s a general term we also associate with those nearing the end of life. But if you were born in 1950, and retired in 2015, you could still be alive in 2040 – decades after you retired.
We know we are living longer and in better health. We have gained years of quality living. It’s time to redefine what it means to grow old in today’s society and change our perceptions on aging.
Western Society has raised us with a predisposition towards white, male, beauty, youth, success and money. But lurking beneath the youth and beauty bubble is a more insidious corollary bias against growing old.
Aging has become another -ism — along with racism and sexism — to break down. Dismantling these entrenched stereotypes isn’t easy. How long have women been fighting for equality? Our beauty standards have been defined since the middle of the 20th century by the mighty advertising industry.
Youth have learned to fear the aging process, not the physical aches and ailments, but the loss of good looks. Their discriminating eyes take in their parents’ thinning grey hair, the deepening wrinkles, loose goosenecks, jelly bellies and sagging triceps.
Their fears are reinforced by a culture that is skittish about death. And they are right to be afraid. They see their parents becoming marginalized after retirement, sidelined with 40-plus years of skills and experience. They see their grandparents shrinking away, sitting alone in suburban retirement residences and dying poor in hospices.
How old am I? My age cannot encompass all that I am. I am not young, and I am not old, and I’m not middle-aged because I don’t know exactly when I will die. I am among the growing midlife population, and until we find more relevant labels for this stage of life, I will remain ageless in an aging society.
I don’t see my life so much as a linear, one-dimensional line from birth to death. It is one of ever-increasing circles, radiating outward, around and around the core essence that is me. For I am growing until I am not.
I was all that I could be when I was 20, and fully me when I was 40, and all that I am when I was 60. So I expect to be more of me when I’m 80 as the sum total of my experiences make it so.
And if we used this circular dimension as a yardstick, its circumference measured by the breadth and depth of years lived, our elders, who complete this circle of life, would hold a more cherished place in society.
I retired from working for a living, not living. For once in my life, I’m not chasing my future. I’m content—make that happy—to be living wholly in the present moment. I appreciate my expanded horizon and the many more years I have to become more of who I am. I will uncover, like a hidden treasure, my underdeveloped interests set aside so long ago. In this extended midlife, I have the time to take better care of my health, support my families and participate in my community.
Boomers, the largest demographic group to wear the senior name tag, can bust society’s perceptions on growing old and redefine what it means to age in the 21st century. We are compassionate, proficient givers with time to share our love and experience. We are creating new lifestyles and realistic social roles that celebrate our wisdom and longevity.
By collectively changing outdated beliefs and diminishing labels, we can eliminate what separates us and strengthen what connects us to society. We have the power to influence the future and offer younger generations a brighter final act lived with purpose, joy, and vitality.