After watching yet another weekend of women’s solidarity events, I think it’s time for a new event—“The Old Farts March.” We have a problem in America that is far more threatening to our future—ageism. And part of what’s dangerous about ageism in America is that it’s not just group-think societal bias where older people (and I don’t mean 90+) are being written off and pushed out. Instead individuals are putting themselves out to pasture, thinking that the minute they get a little memory loss or achy joints, they are on a slow march down a steep hill to oblivion and death.
If you’re over age 50 and reading this, think about it—how many times have you thought about curtailing your activities because you are “too old”? Your knees are creaky—so you can’t run or bike. Your elbow is sore—so no more tennis. You have some free time now that the kids are getting older—but you don’t consider taking music or dance lessons because, after all, those things are for young people. And how many jokes have you made about your failing memory or eyesight? Face it. We all assume that after age 50, it’s simply a slow slide of reduced activity and possibility.
But we have it wrong. It’s not that we are failing…we are shifting and evolving. After we hit 50, our knowledge is greater than ever and we are smarter when making our choices and decisions.
I interviewed two doctors in the past few weeks about topics related to aging, and the message from both of them was shockingly similar—we are our own worst enemies when it comes to the aging process because of our preconceived notions about deterioration.
Dr. Marc Agronin is a geriatric psychiatrist who has been studying the aging process for more than two decades. I did a series of podcasts with Dr. Agronin about his latest book, The End of Old Age: Living a Longer More Purposeful Life. In his book, he makes it clear that society and our own misconceptions are holding older people back from living enriched lives and enriching other people’s lives well into their 80s, 90s and beyond. He talks about how the brain changes as we age, improving in many areas, including our ability to consolidate accumulated knowledge, make decisions and think in new, creative ways. Yet our youth-focused technology-driven world is so busy making speedy choices and celebrating the new, that we are casting aside the greatest assets we have in both the business world and in our families—our elders…the keepers of knowledge and wisdom.
Millennials are driving many exciting changes in the business world, and that is awesome. But how much more efficient would their growth trajectories be if they included a little gray hair in their development teams? Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, is very open about the series of mistakes that he and his team of brilliant Young Turks made in the early days of the business as they blindly tried one tactic after another while building the company. They did it on their own, without guidance from any elder statesmen and, in the end, we all know how amazing Zappos is. But, early on, they struggled, pivoted, struggled, pivoted and so on until they finally found the right formula.
The other doctor I interviewed was Dr. Gayatri Devi, a leading neurologist in New York City and an expert on Alzheimer’s disease. She is the author of The Spectrum of Hope: An Optimistic and New Approach to Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias. In her book, Dr. Devi gives tragic examples of early dementia patients who refused treatment because they assumed they would rapidly be home-bound and vegetative. This couldn’t be further from the truth. According to Dr. Devi, the vast majority of dementia and Alzheimer’s patients are able to function quite productively for many years—it is only about 5% of patients who suffer the stereotypical tragic form of Alzheimer’s. These thinking, feeling, functioning individuals are putting themselves out to pasture long before their time, cutting themselves off from the world as they await their demise.
Worse yet, she describes how the world similarly writes off people the minute they hear about a dementia diagnosis. In fact, she recommends that her patients not tell their friends or businesses about their condition because the minute someone is labeled as having dementia, he/she is treated differently and rapidly becomes invisible. Tragic, since dementia patients often continue to have tremendous abilities to function in assorted ways.
Two different vantage points…one message. Our society is upside down with regard to aging. We celebrate wrinkleless beauty and strong bodies. We strive for boundless energy and constantly are in search of the fountain of youth, hoping to retain those qualities forever.
But keep one thing in mind. Ask older people when they were happiest, and they will tell you that it was later in life, when they knew who they were and who they were not…when they stopped worrying about false judgers…when they felt worldly and wise after accumulating decades of knowledge.
So sad. We are on a mission to protect the environment and not waste our precious natural resources. And yet, we are wasting one of the greatest natural resources we have—the wisdom of our elders.
It’s time to hold on to that treasure…to realize our value to the community…to stop the slander and dismissiveness. We older members of society have a job to do. We are the keepers of the knowledge and the purveyors of the oral traditions. Even in today’s fast-changing world, there are lessons to be shared. And, there are new lessons for us to learn at every age and every stage.
We are not on a slow, drawn-out slide to death. We are constantly changing and growing and evolving beings. We are learning in new, exciting ways that should be celebrated. While our youth-centric society seems not quite ready to celebrate our wisdom, let’s celebrate ourselves. Focus on the gifts you’ve accumulated and the new ones to come. Look forward not back. In the words of Monty Python, let’s show the young that “we’re not yet dead.”