The Liberation of Growing Old - New York Times
Yet today, the language used to describe the changing age composition of the population is little short of apocalyptic. We’re told that the “graying of America” is an “agequake” or a “demographic time bomb.”
Such “gerontophobia” is harmful because we internalize it. Ageism has been described as prejudice against one’s future self. It tells us that age is our defining characteristic and that, as midnight strikes on a milestone birthday, we will become nothing but old — emptied of our passions, abilities and experience, infused instead with frailty and decline.
In their study comparing the memory of young and old Chinese and Americans, Ellen Langer, a social psychologist, and Becca Levy, an epidemiologist, found that the older Chinese people, who, it was hypothesized, were exposed to less ageism than their American counterparts, performed memory tests more like their younger compatriots.
The historians Thomas R. Cole and David Hackett Fischer have documented how, at the start of the 19th century, the idea of aging as part of the human condition, with its inevitable limits, increasingly gave way to a conception of old age as a biomedical problem to which there might be a scientific solution. What was lost was a sense of the life span, with each stage having value and meaning.
Perhaps this is why, as a 2006 study found, we mispredict the happiness we expect to feel across the course of our lives and assume that we’ll get more unhappy as we age. In fact, the research shows that the opposite is true. For my part, at 64, I haven’t attained serenity (another stereotype of older people), but I am more able to savor life — and if offered the chance to return to my 14-year-old self, I’d run screaming the other way.
A student of mine, nudging 60, recently called age “the great liberator.” Part of what she meant was that old people simply care less about what others think, but also, I think, that our sense of what’s important grows with age. We experience life more intensely than before, whatever our physical limitations, because we know it won’t last forever.
Age resistance is a futile kind of life resistance: We can’t live outside time, we begin to age the moment we’re born. But the emerging age-acceptance movement neither decries nor denies the aging process. It recognizes that one can remain vital and present, engaged and curious, indeed continue to grow, until one’s dying breath. Then we need only echo the wish of the British psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott: “May I be alive when I die.”
Anne Karpf is a British-based journalist and sociologist, and the author of “How to Age.”