“Don’t bother trying to explain that to her. She’s too old to get it.”
This is typical of the way older adults are dismissed in our youth-obsessed culture, which stereotypes older people as too set in their ways to change.
Hold on! I’m in my eighth decade. I’m anything but set in my ways. I continue to find new challenges to keep my neurons sizzling.
I’m surrounded by women and men much further along who read extensively, have rich cultural lives, join in social protests, write books and create art and music. They are fully alive and quite capable of learning new tricks. In fact, like me, they thrive on taking in new information and new experiences.
In spite of the fact that older adults are more productive, more engaged with life than previous generations of aging women and men, the stereotype of the stagnant older persists and influences behavior. Older adults in the work force are often not treated as seriously as their younger counterparts. In community forums olders’ comments are often dismissed in favor of those of the younger people in attendance.
By extension many older adults internalize the ‘old dog’ image, holding themselves back from engaging with society the same way they did when they were younger.
To avoid succumbing to the ‘you’re too old to change’ notion, recognize that this is an unfounded assumption. What’s more, there are areas where our aging brains actually improve!
A recent research study from the Institute of Design at Stanford, found that the aging brain is superior to the younger brain when it comes to empathy: “Older adults have a greater capacity for empathy because empathy is learned and refined as we age.”
I would add that the refined brain tends to be more efficient. Today my perspective is clearer than when I was younger. I think this is because my older calmer self has worked through many of the conflicts of my younger self. The absence of these tensions frees up my brain waves. Now I can grasp a problematic situation’s end point in a speedier fashion.
May Sarton described how her 70-year-old mind was enhanced by the often-clearer vision that accompanies aging: “I have learned to glide rather than to force myself at moments of tension.”
Similarly the British octogenarians, Diana Athill, 98, and Penelope Lively, 84, who continue to write and publish, report a deeper appreciation of life in their old age. This settling in and accepting of one’s self is a reward for the greater patience that often accompanies aging.
However, our aging brains are not without challenges. When my life experience lags behind popular culture, I have to work extra hard to keep up. I’m finding this to be the case as I engage with white privilege. I didn’t have the benefit of growing up in an integrated society like my sons and the millennial generation. This doesn’t mean I have avoided the challenge.
American society desperately needs a new narrative on aging. May of us came of age during the turbulent ‘60’s and ‘70’s. We were part of the women’s movement and the anti-war movement while championing economic reforms and racism.
It’s time for us to forge an Aging with Dignity movement, which takes on ageism and sexism. It’s up to us to replace the shop-worn narrative defining the older adult as of little worth. We represent aging with vigorous minds and with lives of experience to pass on, not to be overlooked. We keep learning new tricks and are up for more!
If you’d like more conversations with like-minded women, we have a Facebook page for you: WOW (Women’s Older Wisdom).