For the past 150 years, the standard model of aging in this country has been: Work until retirement, wind down quietly for a few years, become invisible, and then get warehoused.
Specific families may have kept cultural variations on this theme, but since the advent of the industrial revolution, “old people” get treated like they are worn-down machines.
This model of aging — along with death — has been the elephant in the room that nobody talks about. Although everyone agrees that aging and death are inevitable for human beings, most people have been acculturated to deny and fear them both.
But that model is changing right before our eyes, and we are only just starting to become aware of that change. For one thing, significantly increased longevity is making the “wind down quietly” period last for a couple of extra decades, not just a couple of years.
Jo Ann Jenkins, CEO of AARP, writes in her new book, Disrupt Aging: “From the beginning of the modern calendar to 1900, life expectancy increased each year by an average of three days. Since 1900, it has increased by an average of 110 days a year. We added more years to average life expectancy in the last century than in all previous history combined.”
Another reason for the now-percolating changes is that the Baby-Boom bubble has hit. Every day in this country more than 10,000 people turn 65. Boomers have changed the rules every step of the way, and we will not go away quietly. The nascent aging model is about our quality of life, not just longevity. The emerging awareness is about how we will age well. Unquestionably, there are outright losses and difficult physical changes as we age. However, our current world view, which sees inevitable aging as something negative, something to be avoided, rather than something to be embraced, is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Rather than supporting the “anti-aging” industry or trying to be grey-haired teenagers, we need to see the beauty, preciousness and wisdom in elders, no matter what their physical conditions. In the introduction to her book, This is Getting Old, author Susan Moon writes, “‘Wabi-sabi’ is a Japanese expression for appreciating the beauty of impermanence, the imperfection of things that are worn and frayed and chipped through use. Objects that are simple and rustic, like an earthenware tea bowl, and objects that show their age and use, like a wooden bannister worn smooth by many hands, are beautiful.”
Let’s discover that the essence of anyone who ages is beautifully impermanent.
It is our consciousness and resilience that determine how we will experience aging. Do we go through our last third of life by habit, steered by prejudices about ‘old people’? Or do we embrace our inevitable, imperfect aging and seize one more opportunity to get it right?
In the coming months this column will share ideas, resources and information about conscious aging and will contribute to the unfolding discussion about the elephant in the room.
Marc Blesoff is a former Oak Park village trustee, co-founder of the Windmills softball organization, co-creator of Sunday Night Dinner, a retired criminal defense attorney, and a novice beekeeper. He currently facilitates Conscious Aging Workshops and Wise Aging Workshops in the Chicagoland area.