Robert Louis Stevenson in A Child’s Garden of Verses wrote a two line poem, “The world is so full of a number of things/ I ’m sure we should all be as happy as kings…” But to believe this we have to remain as curious as we were when we were children and everything was new and exciting.
Later, Einstein said, “The important thing is to not stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”
Though the current state of the world is certainly not conducive to general happiness, maintaining an interest in our surroundings, our friends and acquaintances as well as a desire to learn new things can make our old age as full and rewarding a period in our lives as any other. If we become involved with other people to “make”, advocate for, or do things about which we feel passionate, we have less time to brood about the challenges of old age. Of course, there are difficulties; for some isolation and consequent loneliness, compromised mobility, illness and poverty create huge barriers. These can colour our own view of old age as well as that of others. There’s no doubt that the elderly need support, and not only in medical matters, but also social supports which help to mitigate loneliness and prevent isolation. Fortunately, as the number of older people increases world-wide and they become a larger and larger proportion of the population, many societies are beginning to realise the importance of changing a negative view of old age into a positive one and local governments and organizations are offering more supportive programmes to their senior citizens.
Some researchers argue that holding a positive attitude towards old age helps people live longer. But even more importantly, they age better. Dr. Becca Levy, a professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health, has been researching this topic since the 1990’s. She, and other researchers, discovered that self-image is an important factor in how people age. If they live in a society where older people are valued, as for example in Pakistan, this encourages the elderly take a more positive view about age and may influence their health. In other societies, where more negative views hold sway, the individual’s view of old age is vitally important. Since the World Health Organization found in a survey, which included 57 countries, that 60% of those responding had a negative view of aging, fighting this stereotype can be difficult. Those who succumb to negative stereotypes, according to Levy have higher levels of stress, which in turn have been associated with various health issues. Staying positive also makes it more likely that older persons will maintain an active life-style and take better care of themselves. Those with positive views are less likely to be depressed or anxious, show increased well-being and recover more quickly from disability.
Levy’s research has shown that the difference in the length of lives lived by those who view old age positively and negatively is significant. One long-term study of Americans with positive views found that they lived 7.5 years longer than those with negative ones. (Age Well: Attitudes Matter in a Graying World, Jim Rendon and Olufemi, Terry, https//agewell.orb.org )
So how can individuals help themselves and others? First, by fighting ageism, wherever we find it, for example, there are many articles written about “older writers”, but they often turn out to be about people in their forties or possibly fifties! Maybe the current popularity of memoirs will help older writers push back. I have read many written by people who are now “retired” and who are distilling their experiences and wisdom into engaging books. Don’t give up your passions—if you write or paint or make anything with fabric, clay or other material, keep going! I sometimes feel intimidated by stories about 91 year old athletes but if that’s your talent, let it continue to be your life-line.
But to go back to the beginning, the world is filled with wonderful things as well as horrific ones. We may feel overwhelmed sometimes by the pace of change, but change and flux have always been basic conditions of life. Accepting change and embracing it if we can, will allow us to go on growing something that has little to do with how old we are. I just finished reading Michelle Obama’s autobiography,Becoming. She writes that as a child she thought adults’ most useless question was, what do you want to be when you grow up? Growing up isn’t finite she argues, at no point do you become something and that’s it. She has done many things in her life, has had a number of diverse careers, and we can be sure that in the future she will continue to do so.