Getting Older v. Feeling Old: The Challenges of Aging


By Stacey O’Brien
Every time I look in the mirror, I’m struck by how quickly my hair is graying. I’m a redhead (or a ginger, as we are now called), and had deep auburn hair as a girl. Now that I’m in my mid 50s, that fiery hair has lightened to a strawberry blonde. I’ve always been opposed to coloring it, but recently, I thought about it…but that only lasted for a few minutes. Instead, I tried a henna shampoo (a tip from another ginger!).
I don’t feel a day over 30 inside, but my hair (and my skin, my hands and my body) show the world I’ve been alive longer than that. Women in particular often dread the changes that aging brings and go through significant efforts to prevent them. And the success of those efforts is mixed, they’re impacted by gender, race, and income level. Those factors all play a role in what our society has come to see as “successful” aging, getting older without looking or acting “old.”
The added pressure society places on women to look young and fit goes without saying. You’ve probably heard the saying that on a man, gray hair looks distinguished, but on a woman, it just looks old. That applies to other signs of aging as well. How successfully a woman retains a more youthful look is directly affected by her level of financial security. Women with fewer financial resources can use creams and lotions, makeup and gyms and fitness classes, but women with greater financial means are more likely to have access to the healthiest foods, personal trainers, surgical options and injectables.

“(Ageism is) one of the few remaining forms of discrimination that’s still widely acceptable”

The roots of ageism
No matter what resources we do or don’t have access to, we all eventually face an “ism” that affects those of us fortunate enough to grow older: ageism. The World Health Organization defines ageism as the widespread “stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination against people on the basis of their age.” Like other forms of prejudice, ageism limits health and well-being in later life. But unlike other “isms,” it’s one of the few remaining forms of discrimination that’s still widely acceptable.

In a study of middle-aged people, researcher Toni Calasanti found that most saw healthy aging as something that’s possible for everyone, not just the financially well-off. But that option didn’t stop those same people from expressing ageist attitudes.

The study participants looked at aging in terms of only two options:
a) “Successful” aging – healthy and fit.
b) “Unsuccessful” aging – physically frail, in cognitive decline and socially disengaged.

This win/lose view of aging is a very limited one, and it only adds to the stress people feel about aging. Those who develop “unsuccessful” aging features feel more internal stress (failure, guilt, fear) and external stress (blame, revulsion) about their own aging. As a result, older people feel tremendous pressure to stay healthy, active and youthful, and to keep themselves from being excluded or blamed for their age, which further reinforces ageist perspectives.

The media isn’t helping
These contradictory views of aging are reinforced in the media, where older persons are depicted as either healthy and active or frail and faltering – nothing in between. Those who are active and healthy get credit for eating well, exercising and taking care of themselves. This reinforces the idea that aging is in our control and wholly the result of the personal choices we make, and that those who haven’t aged well are somehow at fault, but that simply isn’t true.

While personal choices certainly impact how we age, those choices alone don’t predict an outcome. For one thing, the same menu of good choices isn’t available to all of us. But even if it was, healthy living won’t reverse the effect of genetics, childhood poverty, early trauma, disability and chronic stress.

While it’s wonderful to see stories of older people who are skydiving and running marathons, those extreme examples can actually diminish our perception of the more “everyday” strengths of the older people in our lives. Strengths like being the bedrock for our families and communities, caring for children, passing on traditions, volunteering to help others and more. Acknowledging those contributions as strengths is an important part of combating ageism in our society.

Instituting stronger policies around aging is another important part of that equation. Seventy-six percent of people over 50 want to age in their own homes. However, this depends on the availability and accessibility of policies and programs that support aging in place. Safe neighborhoods, dependable transportation options for those who no longer drive, meaningful activities and affordable support options are all part of ensuring we can age well.

As women, we can make a difference
Women are underrepresented in policy discussions. Plus, we often put off making choices around our own aging until it’s too late to do anything proactive. Yet we are in a position to offer significant contributions to policy, given our interaction with public institutions in our communities. And we can also make vital choices now about our own older years.

Now is the time to learn more about aging, and get to know the programs and policies in your area that support healthy aging and engagement. Once you identify the barriers to healthy aging in your community, challenge yourself to get involved to make change.

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