“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” — Serenity Prayer
After writing humorously about the aging process a few weeks ago, I ran across an article written by Paula Span, focusing on the research and work of Becca Levy, a psychologist, epidemiologist and professor at the Yale School of Public Health. Part of Levy’s work specifically points to 7 1/2 years that can be added or subtracted from a person’s life based upon personal and societal attitudes toward aging. Since then, my brain has picked up Levy’s thesis, as if it were an object of study, and has been manipulating it from all angles as I consider its premise with what I thought I knew and what I hope to understand/apply.
And what do I know? I know that I definitely won’t be retiring during my 50s as I once believed. At one time, I harbored some resentment about this. Then we went through the pandemic and I experienced the heat of transformation with millions of other people, like sand particles melting into glass.
It was during the pandemic that I slowly began to observe many of my attachments to “how things should be,” such as my retirement age, and I began to undergo a practice of learning to say “yes” more often to things that weren’t “how they should be.” It was, and continues to be, a very imperfect practice. Learning to accept and surrender to the things that I cannot change is not my natural inclination.
In addition to my belief about retirement age, nearly 10 years ago I battled low back pain due to three bulging discs and an extra vertebra. Without belaboring the topic, the pain led me down a meandering path of chiropractic care, regular epidural steroid injections and ultimately two 12-week rounds of physical therapy. Both well-meaning doctors and physical therapists told me I should never participate in any form of high intensity exercise, including running, again. I accepted this theory because, after all, they were the professionals, and besides I was getting to “that age” — whatever that means.
Fortunately, one physical therapist disagreed, suggesting that I should strengthen the weak muscles that were causing imbalances that led to my injury in the first place. Then, if I continued to work on maintaining that strength and listened to my body, he believed that I could gradually resume running and other forms of exercise I had been told to avoid. His advice later proved to be spot-on.
Therefore, as the pandemic continued, work changed, living conditions changed and exercise changed as we said goodbye to gyms and group exercise. Work meant sitting for hours.
Low back, hip pain, depression and sleep disruption escalated. I learned that I was not made to sit for long periods, and I began to realize that in-person work was more beneficial to my life than I realized.
Through trial and error during the pandemic, I began to resume various forms of exercise that I had once abandoned, including running, and I began to rethink my belief system about my own aging process. I started approaching my life and my physical body with a bit more curiosity-making observations, asking questions, forming hypotheses, testing them and making adjustments. This continues today.
The pandemic forced me to make peace with the fact that I will work longer than I had originally planned because it is still beneficial for me. Furthermore, I have embraced my need for movement; I cannot sit for hours, and even if I could, it is not good for me physically or mentally. Additionally, I need interaction with others, even if I am an introvert at heart.
However, I still value and honor my need for downtime, introspection, reflection and quiet. Span’s article, combined with the pandemic experience, inspires me to seek the courage in the coming years to continue to change what I can, but to also hone my ability to know when I can’t. This is only possible through the wisdom that comes with life experience, aka aging.
Aging is not a point to which to attach shame, negative stereotyping or embarrassment. Instead, the process of aging should celebrate one’s life experiences and provide us with opportunities to not only apply the knowledge gained from these experiences to our own lives, but to also use them for the benefit of those with whom we interact and/or mentor.
To be certain, aging brings unavoidable changes in the physical body and in the way we think (and forget), but it is not necessarily a time for stopping, like much of our cultural cues teach us by celebrating youthful beauty, prowess and achievement. In fact, after reading about Levy’s work, I realize there’s plenty of money to be made. According to Span’s article, Dr. Levy and her colleagues estimate that “age discrimination, negative age stereotypes and negative self-perceptions of aging lead to $63 billion in excess annual spending on common health conditions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes and injuries,” not to mention all of the money made from products promising to turn back the clock.
One of the most compelling examples of psychological absorption and damage of cultural ageism in Span’s article occurred when Levy took her 70-something grandmother shopping in a Florida grocery store and her grandmother fell over a crate left in an aisle. The grandmother’s injury was superficial, but it did bleed profusely. When the grandmother suggested to the store owner that crates should not be left in an aisle, the store owner replied that “old people fall all the time, and maybe they shouldn’t be walking around.” After that point, Levy observed that her once lively grandmother began to ask others to do tasks for her that she once regularly completed. It was as if her grandmother began to subconsciously view the grocery store incident as her cue that she was old and incapable of caring for herself.
Meanwhile, in Blue Zone parts of the world, geographical locations in which people live the longest and are the healthiest, centenarians are celebrated as if they were highly acclaimed celebrities. If these parts of the world can encourage, foster and honor a culture where aging is not only accepted but highly valued, why can’t we?
Maybe I cannot change the current culture, but I can change my own personal view on the maturing process. Wrinkles capture the adventures in the sun as well as countless moments of smiling. Gray hair celebrates the continuation of our inner child wanting to roam free and wild, and body aches/pains are a reminder to care for the vessel God gave us.
I now know that phrases such as “that age” reflect culturally and socially programmed attitudes that marketers, businesses and the health care industry prefer is an ingrained part of our vocabulary. While not every business or health care provider is personally invested in this ageism, I no longer desire to accept those marketers’ money-making, psychologically damaging propaganda. What about you?