The Key to Aging Without Apology or Regret?
Be the Exception!
by Roger A. Reid
“If only I could go with you,” Wendy sighed.
“You can’t go,” Peter said. “You’re too old. You’ve forgotten how to fly.”
“I am old, Peter. I am ever so much more than twenty. I grew up long ago.”
“You promised not to!”
“I couldn’t help it.”
When J.M. Barrie wrote the book, “Peter Pan” back in 1904, I doubt he had any idea his soon-to-be popular children’s story would also become a powerful metaphor about aging.
For me, it’s the last line in the conversation between Wendy and Peter that’s the most significant.
“I couldn’t help it.”
We get older. We change. Our bodies show the signs of time, and the wear and tear of life.
Psychologists tell us to embrace it, to wear our wrinkles and gray hair with pride. It’s an inevitable part of life, they say, encouraging us to accept the winding down of our biological clock with grace and perspective.
Marketers and manufacturers of pharmaceuticals and vitamin supplements assure us “It’s Only a Number,” encouraging us to counter the obvious evidence of our ever-shortening telomeres with the inferred guarantee that using their products will help raise our spirits and lower our blood pressure.
And the cosmetics industry promises us that by using the right combination of wrinkle reducing creams, face bronzers, and hair color, we can convince others to look beyond our weathering exterior to see that the fire still rages, the creative spirit still conceives, and our need to be included still burns strong.
But it isn’t really like that, is it?
The message we receive from media, the business world, and even our own social circle—with rare exception—is much different.
In fact, if you listen to the constant drone of negativity—the innuendo, the implied judgments, the outright discrimination—surrounding those with six or more decades under their belt, you’d think turning sixty was the equivalent of having an expiration stamped on your forehead, with the “good until date” so close, younger folks are wondering if the contents are still good.
“It’s a curse,” a business associate told me. You hit a certain birthday and suddenly, people start treating you different. I think the worst part is when you’re no longer included in social events, dinner invitations, or even conversations.”
I’d known the guy for several years, and he was friendly, intelligent, a great host, and got along well with everyone. His wife was attractive and fun to be around. Had their friends suddenly ostracized them because of one additional candle on the last birthday cake?
“Was it something in particular?” I asked.
“Until last year,” he said, “we’d always hung out with the “kids,” a bunch of forty-something couples we’d known for years. We were part of the group—going to the beach together, hiking in the forest, and taking weekend ski trips. This year, no one talked about scheduling anything, so we assumed the trips had been called off. But that wasn’t the case at all. We later found out they went without us.”
His story isn’t unusual—younger friends losing interest in older friends. It often happens when the senior members of the group reach a landmark birthday, when the signs of aging become more obvious and the “oldsters” no longer physically blend as well with their younger counterparts.
For him, it was a watershed year.
Collectively, seniors are too often represented as a stereotype of decline and ineffectiveness. Even worse, we’re expected to take our place and smile, allowing the culture to assimilate us, to cast us into the widely-accepted but unbefitting role of a wobbly oldster, besieged by senior moments, obsessed with early dinner discounts, and constantly stalked by the looming shadows of an assisted care facility.
So what’s the answer? Do we blame society? Do we find fault with our appearance-driven culture for instilling us with erroneous values about youth? Or should we point the finger at the media, for bombarding us with images of complacent seniors doddering around age-restricted communities looking for a hot game of checkers?
No. That would be the easy way out. And more importantly, it wouldn’t change anything.
First, let’s face an unpleasant fact: Like it or not, others are going to judge. And they will judge us on our appearance, behavior, and attitude.
But that’s terrible, you say.
Yes it is. And it’s the truth.
But make no mistake – we set the bar for how we want to be treated.
So how do we change the general perceptions of aging? How do we reverse generations of programming and prove the unflattering judgments and generalizations to be false?
The key is found in five simple words—Choose to be the Exception.
Exceptional people rise above the generalizations drawn from the lowest common denominator. And they demonstrate that their role in life has merit, regardless of their age.
It begins with a shift in mindset, and often, a change in personal behavior.
In taking a closer look at seniors who are at the top of their game and, more important, have refused to allow societal typecasting define their role in life, I found several commonalities the majority of these “outliers” demonstrate that helps define them as top performers—regardless of their age.
Their values, beliefs, and behaviors are not mysterious or esoteric. And yet, they represent the basis for a mindset and, quite literally, a life-plan that can improve and enrich the last half of our journey to make it truly exceptional. In fact, these suggestions are applicable to anyone—at any age—who wants to live a healthier, more satisfying life.
1. Separate your age from your identity. Attitude is everything. And the only way to change the attitude of our detractors is to first change our own personal expectations of decline that are inherently a part of society’s prescription for fitting in as a senior. How would you act if you hadn’t been programmed by society with “aging expectations?” You wouldn’t know when to retire or enter that span of life typically called (shudder) old age. Ideally, you want others to base your identity on your general health, activity level, and mental acuity, and not by the number of years you’ve lived.
2. Find motivation and inspiration from role models who have chosen to be the exception. There are plenty of “seniors” who refused to conform—those who ignored the generalizations of an age-divided culture. Here’s a few examples:
- Earnestine Shepard started working out at age 56. At 82, she claimed the title of the world’s oldest competitive female bodybuilder.
- James Parkinson made his breakthrough discovery, identifying Parkinson’s disease, at age 62
- Peter Roget started work on his thesaurus at age 61.
- The author of Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe, wrote his famous novel at age 60.
- Coco Chanel was still in charge of her fashion and beauty empire at age 85.
- Ranulph Fiennes climbed Everest at age 65. At 71, he completed a 156-mile run across the Sahara desert.
- Laura Wilder was 65 years old when her fictional story, “Little House in the Big Woods” was published. Continuing to write additional installments to the series, her last one was published when she was 76.
- Anna Mary Robertson (Grandma Moses) started painting at age 67 and did not experience any real degree of success from her work until she was 78.
Keep in mind that exception role models don’t have to be recognized celebrities or social icons. You probably already personally know several, but because you don’t know their age, or it isn’t obvious, you’ve never realized their senior status. Here are a few examples from my own personal circle of friends:
Kevin Cathy Bonnie Jill and Cathy
At sixty-three, Kevin Claramunt helps others—often a decade or more his junior—accomplish their health and fitness goals.
At sixty-five, Cathy Winters improves her student’s lives by teaching them Yoga, nutrition, and fitness.
Sixty-eight year old Bonnie Kebbe is a print model for a luxury clothing boutique.
3. Change what you read and listen to. Find blogs, books, magazines, and programs that interest you. Learn something new. Stay current in at least one field of study.
4. Associate with people of all ages. Maintaining the company of those only of your generation separates you from the rest of the world, and more important, from learning and participating in activities and opportunities typically reserved for younger folks. In our Americanized society, longevity and the rewards of youth have become mutually exclusive. As long as young people view seniors as inadequate, slow, and inflexible—and seniors allow that image to persist—the two generations reciprocally support a culture of age-based separation. Removing preconceptions and generalizations about aging is the first step in reducing age discrimination.
5. Realize where you live makes a huge difference. In my twenties, I had a business partner who claimed, “People are the same all over, regardless of where they live.” Since I’d seldom ventured out of the state, I assumed he knew something I didn’t. But over the next twenty years, I had the opportunity to travel and live in difference parts of the country. I found he couldn’t have been more wrong. As social animals, we are influenced by environment, attitude, education, financial resources, and other distinctive demographics of the area. We tend to become like those we’re around. We’re influenced by their energy and attitude, and we reflect it back to others. Where you choose to live can make you lazy or productive, healthy or ill, depressed or happy. Choose wisely. It makes a huge difference.
6. Adopt a health consciousness. Be an advocate for your mind and body. So many of us take our bodies for granted, forgetting they are a vulnerable dividing line between life and death. The ancient metaphor of treating them like virtual temples—cultivating and maintaining our physical health to extend our longevity—is still as true today as it was 2000 years ago. But the data on obesity, heart disease, and cancer tells us a huge percentage of us treat our bodies like a walking landfill, a back alley where we throw our daily garbage. Instead of taking action to slow and in some cases, reverse the physical and mental decline that accompanies the unmaintained body, we allow our muscles and mind to deteriorate. But it’s never too late to change our priorities. Start by exchanging the temporary comfort dispensed from the drive-thru window of a fast-food restaurant for the long-term benefits of a natural, whole food diet, free of preservatives and chemicals. Find something physical you enjoy doing. Whether it’s gardening, walking, swimming, dancing, playing tennis, ping-pong, or participating in a basic exercise program, choose an activity that will get you moving.
7. Ignore those who advocate age-appropriate behavior, dress, or appearance. If you want to color your hair blue, do it! If you’ve worked hard on your body and want to show it off, don’t let turning 60 stop you from wearing a bikini at the beach. The number of birthdays you’ve collected does not require you to meet the collective expectations of a polite and civil society—which by the way, is seldom polite or civil. Those who are quick to judge the dress or appearance of others as age-inappropriate are revealing themselves to be arrogant, petty, and shallow. If you’re on the receiving end of such nonsense, consider it a compliment.
8. Never meet the negative expectations of others by giving in . . . and giving up. Avoid writing yourself off because the number of years remaining in front of you is less than those behind. Your age is not an excuse to do less or to stop making a contribution. Ignore the comments and “advice” of those who warn you to slow down or take it easy, because someone “your age,” isn’t as fit, limber, or has the endurance of someone younger. Just because you’re sixty-five, doesn’t mean you can’t run a marathon, or learn to play guitar, or get your body back into the best shape of your life. And never believe “pseudo-scientific” rhetoric that advocates the brain is less effective as you age. Turning seventy doesn’t mean your mind is suddenly less sharp or less productive than it was yesterday, or last week, or last year.
9. Seek out medical professionals who advocate “power-aging” through proactive physical and mental health. As we age, we’re presented with two options: Wait for time to weaken our bodies and then try to mitigate the damage with drugs, or reduce our risk of disease and physical degeneration with intelligent food choices and exercise. That’s it. Just two choices. And when you compare them, there’s really only one that makes any sense. And yet, our medical community isn’t always on our side when it comes to living a healthy lifestyle. Most practice a “pharmaceutical” mindset, giving only token appreciation to a healthy diet and exercise. For example, about four years ago, I tore my rotator cuff during a gym workout. After the doctor gave me the pros and cons of surgery versus physical therapy, he added, “You’ve know, you’ve got to slow down, stop pushing yourself, and learn how to grow old gracefully.” I took his advice to heart and immediately changed doctors.
10. Avoid age-segregated living. Retirement publications tell us we should downsize and move into a seniors-only or age-restricted community—a thinly disguised suggestion of voluntary exile. But reducing our contact with the general population is exactly the opposite approach we should take if we want to remain an active and vibrant part of society. Segregating the old negatively influences the perspective of the young. The value of living six, seven, or eight decades—and the collection of experience it brings—should be shared, not sequestered away behind the gated facade of an age-mandated, half-way house between this life and the next.
Aging well is about attitude. It’s based on the way we feel about ourselves and how we expect others to treat us. Instead of accepting the prescription written by a youth-prioritized culture that relegates the old to a easily ignored, used-up segment of society—a forgotten demographic that must be tolerated out of necessity—we can demonstrate our ability to be vital, contributing members of the tribe. Rather than an aging senior, we can choose to become an exceptional elder – someone who isn’t judged by the number of lines on their face, but by the example they set in living an extraordinary life.