Q. As I lie here on the floor exercising due to an attack of very painful sciatica, I am fuming that my daughter-in-law says I should accept the pain due to my aging. Note some of my activities: I am a 6-year breast cancer survivor, have been bike riding 25-30 miles, three times a week and walked Disney World about 50 times; we also travel and entertain. I have combined two homes, remodeled and designed another and for Christmas, bought multiple presents for each of five grandchildren, five spouses, eight grandchildren and two great, great grandchildren and wrapped them all with no help. Also decorated my home with three Christmas trees. Please give me some kind of “comeback” when age is blamed for my temporary condition. I shouldn’t feel pigeonholed. V.D.
If there was ever a time for a teachable moment, it is now. Of course, that depends if your daughter-in-law is open to information. Let’s assume that she is and offer our best response.
Let’s begin with feeling pigeonholed. Remind your daughter-in-law that older adults are more different from one another than they are similar. They age differently and at different rates. Children have more in common with one another going through similar developmental stages. Two 80-year-old have less in common than two 8-year-olds.
Here is more of what we know about aging.
Ageism. Ageism is prejudice or discrimination based on a person’s age. Often people are not aware of their ageist thoughts or comments. For example, assuming that pain is caused by age is not only wrong but places blame on older individuals, as if it is their fault. It’s a stereotyped way of thinking. Age in itself does not hurt. However, osteoarthritis and musculoskeletal disorders do cause pain. It’s not aging that causes the pain, it’s the conditions that often accompany aging. Additionally, there are treatments to diminish or alleviate pain from medications to acupuncture or pain management treatments. In many cases, there is no need to suffer and certainly not because of one’s age.
Resilience. Resilience is the ability to overcome hardships during challenging circumstances. This past year is a good example. Studies have shown that older adults were less likely to experience pandemic-related anxiety, depression and stress compared to younger persons. “One of the most resilient groups of people is older adults,” says Dr. Maureen Nash, medical director of Providence ElderPlace PACE Oregon. She is quoted as saying, “They have a lifetime of overcoming challenging and difficult situations and the only way to get through that is by being resilient.” This has been affirmed by studies of older adults in Spain and The Netherlands.
Health. Indeed, older adults have more health-related issues than younger folks as immune systems are not as robust. About 80% of those age 65 and older have at least one chronic health condition; about 68% have at least two according to the National Council on Aging. The five most common are hypertension, high cholesterol, arthritis, coronary heart disease and diabetes. Most of these conditions can be managed through medication and a healthy lifestyle. These chronic conditions do not necessarily stop older adults from doing what is important in their daily lives. This is where motivation, grit and resilience come into play.
Healthy lifestyle. A healthy lifestyle in later life might be defined as healthy eating, regular physical activity, staying at a healthy weight, keeping your mind active, making mental health a priority, not smoking, participating in activities you enjoy and staying socially connected. Add to that a sense of purpose, spirituality and taking steps to prevent falls. V.D., it might be useful to share how your rate on these dimensions. It seems that you are doing well particularly in areas of purpose, physical activities and social and mental engagement. We know that a healthy lifestyle leads to greater longevity, slows the normal aging process and enhances quality of life. That’s all without taking a pill.
Our role in the economy. Older adults contribute $8.3 trillion to the American economy. AARP calls this contribution the longevity economy, which is the sum of all economic activity driven by the needs of Americans aged 50 and older. That include both products and services they purchase directly and other economic activity the spending generates. If the longevity economy were ranked as a nation, we would rank third, just behind the U.S. and China when measured by gross domestic product.
So here is the message for your daughter-in-law. Aging does not mean you have to suffer because you are older; that hints of ageism. Older adults are resilient and most often are not deterred by chronic conditions. Commitment to a healthy lifestyle is to be respected and even admired. And finally, older adults are major assets to our economy and should never be diminished or undervalued. Their contributions to our community and society are many.
V.D., Thank you for your good question. I hope this little aging 101 mini course helps your daughter-in-law to think differently. Feel free to share the column. Stay safe and well, and be kind to yourself and others.
Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging, employment and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Helendenn@gmail.com. Visit Helen at HelenMdennis.com and follow her on facebook.com/SuccessfulagingCommunity