What is your attitude about the aging process? Do you view it as a positive rite of passage or a negative phenomenon that must simply be endured?
I recently read an inspiring article written in 2017 by oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens in which he reflects on his life’s “fourth quarter.” Having suffered several strokes in the past few years, which necessitated extensive speech therapy, and a bad fall that required hospitalization, he acknowledges that he is facing his own mortality.
Yet, at 90 years old, Pickens remains invigorated by life. “Be the eternal optimist who is excited to see what the next decade will bring,” he advises. “I remain excited every day, engaged and thrilled in the office and on the road. I thrive on that activity, and I’m going to stick to it, no matter the setback.”
Pickens’ attitude is inspirational by almost anyone’s standards, yet not everyone views the aging process as positively as he.
How ageism distorts views on aging
I’ve written quite a bit about ageism. It’s a hot topic and a societal issue that some say is becoming more endemic than even sexism or racism.
The World Values Survey (WVS), which is an ongoing research project conducted by social scientists around the globe, asked over 83,000 people of all age groups in 57 countries about their feelings on aging. The World Health Organization (WHO) analyzed the WVS data and found that 60 percent of survey respondents said that they don’t think older people are respected. Interestingly, the lowest levels of respect for older generations were reported in higher income countries.
These negative attitudes about ageing and older people reflected in the WVS can have a significantly detrimental impact on the physical and mental health of seniors. A 2002 study by psychology researchers in Yale University’s department of epidemiology and public health looked at the long-term health consequences of ageism on seniors. The researchers determined that age discrimination actually has the potential power to shorten seniors’ lives.
The Yale study followed 660 seniors age 50 and older. Among the study group, seniors who held more positive views about the aging process actually lived 7.5 years longer than people who negatively perceived aging. Older people who perceive themselves as a burden to others view their very lives as less valuable, which in turn ups their risk for depression and social isolation, both of which have been shown to be “silent killers” for seniors.
The positive aging movement
Of course, some facets of a person’s health, good or bad, are genetic and thus out of their hands, but many aspects of health and the aging process in general are well within our control. However, as we age, “health” isn’t just about the absence of ailments. The concept of “positive aging,” also referred to as “healthy aging,” is achievable by every older person as we work to make better choices in the near-term to improve our lives in the long-term.
Positive aging is basically adopting a positive view of aging as a healthy, normal part of life. And it’s the mindset that you will do whatever is needed in order to continue doing the things that you love and are important to you as you grow older. Just like T. Boone Pickens working hard to regain his speech after his strokes and getting back to work — in a 60-year career he still loves — after his fall.
Since most people don’t have the monetary resources of Mr. Pickens, society must look for ways to enable seniors embrace positive aging and to continue pursuing their passions, and governments should enact health and social policies that facilitate these pursuits. Such expenditures may be viewed by some as extraneous costs to society, but in reality, they are investments in improving seniors’ health as they enable older people to continue to make their many positive contributions to the world around them.
Tips for positive aging
Dr. Manfred Diehl, professor of human development and family studies at Colorado State University, focuses on successful and healthy aging. He has done extensive research on adults’ perceptions and understanding of their own aging process and also how changing middle-aged and older adults’ negative views on aging can facilitate the adoption of behaviors that are known to promote positive aging.
Dr. Diehl created a list of ways to adopt a more positive attitude toward your own aging process. He suggests that seniors:
- Stay physically active by doing at least 30 minutes of movement or exercise every day.
- Exercise your brain by engaging in mentally challenging activities, and never stop learning new things.
- Adopt an overall healthy lifestyle by eating healthfully, getting enough sleep, managing weight, and not drinking in excess or smoking.
- Stay connected to other people by nurturing relationships with your spouse or partner, family, friends, neighbors, and others in your community, including young people.
- Create positive emotions for yourself by practicing positive emotion exercises and learning to feel good about your age.
- Don’t sweat the small stuff; accept what you cannot do, and ask for help when needed.
- Set goals for yourself and take control of the steps needed to achieve them.
- Minimize life stress; practice healthy coping techniques, and learn to relax and unwind.
- Have regular medical check-ups, take advantage of health screenings, and engage in healthy preventive behaviors.
A positive outlook for a healthier life
With his positive outlook and can-do spirit, T. Boone Pickens seems to have mastered the art of positive aging. For those of you who may struggle with maintaining optimism about the aging process, you’re certainly not alone. But by reframing your thoughts on growing older and focusing on Dr. Diehl’s healthy suggestions, you can improve your mindset, and hopefully, following your example, society’s views about aging also will evolve for the better.