SOCIAL WORKERS ENHANCING HEALTHY AGING by Dr. Joaquin Anguera

I was told to give an inspirational talk about aging and at the same time bring in some of my personal experience.

Well, let me start right away with some personal experience: The first day of my Gerontology class I tell students that a ship of Martians has landed on campus and that one of the things they want to learn about is “aging,” because Martians don’t age.

Also, they don’t know English, so the only way to communicate is by showing them some drawings.  So now, please get a piece of paper and start drawing:  “Describe” what it means to be old to someone who lives on a planet where “old” does not exist.

When I collect their works of art, what do I get?   Drawings of wheel chairs, canes, glasses, dentures, bottles of medication, a hospital with a big sign “emergency room,”  hospital beds, walkers, depends, tombs with RIP…     The more artistic draw  faces and persons:  bold heads or with a couple of hairs, faces w/wrinkles, someone crying… , sitting in a rocking chair, laying in bed,   w/a cane and carrying a bottle of oxygen….   You get the picture!

Surprising?  Not really!

  • Here’s the main question: Do we as a society understand what aging means?
  • Is old age a problem? Probably… many would tell you

My talk will consist of three parts:

1) What are society’s current views of old age?

2) What those views should be in a perfect society, and, finally

3) Some things we can do to change the current images

 1. What are society’s views of old age?

Since everyone experiences aging, it is not surprising that we all have a powerful set of cultural models, understandings, and assumptions.

Aging is complex, fascinating and inevitable. The process of aging involves not only personal changes, but it is impacted by social events and attitudes. Dr. Bill Thomas was in town 3 weeks ago to present his “show” entitled “Aging: life’s most dangerous game.”

The truth is that we have created a new stage of life but have not yet envisioned its purpose, meaning, and opportunities, and so the space is being filled with our fears. Like a drunk searching for a lost wallet under the wrong lamppost “because that’s where the light is,” we are not looking for answers in the right places.

Too many older persons  suffer from a pain, far deeper than physical, caused by not having a reason to get up in the morning. Many of them wanted to make a difference in the world but, finding no role for themselves, are treated as socially useless and even invisible.

We are a species wired to feel needed, respected, and purposeful. The absence of those qualities is actually harmful to our health.

The general dominant  models of aging include views of aging as a negative process to be avoided at all costs.    The prevailing thinking relates to aging as “loss of control”, “breaking down.”

The public and media describe aging by using some  Demeaning  and Dreaded “D” words.  Yes, I call them the “D”  words of aging. The list is long…  aging is seen as DECLINE,  DETERIORATION,  DISABILITY,  DEPENDENCE,  DISFUNCTION, DESTITUTION,  DEPRESSION,   DECAY,  DISEASE, DEMENTIA…  all leading ultimately to DEATH.

No wonder that the elderly are DEVALUED,  DEGRADED, and DESPISED…                     A DISGRACE!      When we put all of this together, we actually create an institutional DISASTER!

These deep and negative views make the process of aging something to be feared and fought against, rather than embraced as a process that brings new opportunities and challenges for individuals and society.

This also results in the segregation of older adults as a singular category of people — “those old people” or “the elderly”— and facilitates a pattern of “us vs. them” thinking.     Seeing older people as the “other” contributes to a win/lose perspective.   It’s rampant in our society—I win, you lose.

It seems someone must always lose if there is a winner. The “Us vs. Them” rings true in government support: a program for the aged will take away from a program for children.  Ours seems to be “no country for old men.”  Elders need to be sent to “another country,” like old Eskimos placed on a floating iceberg.  In fact, Mary Pipher wrote a book  “Another Country: Navigating the emotional terrain of our elders.”

Quite often, it’s a disgrace how we treat our elders. It is time we transform our perceptions of aging, from dependency and weakness to one of proficiency and resourcefulness.

  1. What should be the proper attitude toward elders and aging?

The elders share the same sense of purpose as everyone.   Why now think of them as obsolete?  The current generation of older Americans  represents an extraordinary pool of both social and human capital. “We don’t have a single person to waste”  said Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Gray Panthers.

We need to talk more about the three A’s  necessary for successful aging:  ATTITUDE,   ACCEPTANCE,  and ADAPTABILITY. There is a growing body of research showing that our attitudes toward aging affect our health and our resilience in the face of adversity.   Becca Levy at Yale, conducted a study that followed several hundred older adults for more than 20 years. She found that those who held more positive views of old age lived 7.5 years longer than their peers who held negative age-related stereotypes.We, and our elders, need to see aging as thriving rather than just surviving. Staying in control and feeling challenged is essential.Once we change our attitudes, then we’ll be able to change institutions and communities.

2nd. Requirement  to succeed in aging:   Acceptance

We need to claim and celebrate our age. Malcom X said: “We cannot think of being acceptable to others until we have first proven acceptable to ourselves.” Old has to be seen as valued, meaningful and significant. Recently I saw a new slogan that’s being promoted (by Amy Gorely):  “Be bold, claim old.”   Enjoy the freedom of being old.   There are fewer social pressures, and far more opportunities for growth and engagement.

After  changing our Attitudes and Accepting ourselves as old… one final requirement to succeed in old age is  Adaptability:
What Is Adaptability?

Learning to adapt to change .   Adapting—as opposed to coping—is a tough challenge. But the ability to adapt can be learned. As with most skills, it takes practice, effort and dedication.

A couple of  ways we can practice emotional adaptability are by

Rehearsing. Give ourselves a chance to practice new skills and new behaviors or to learn about a new situation.

Second: Creating support systems. Look to mentors, friends, coaches, trusted peers, family members and others to serve as our support system in times of change.

A sub-set of adaptability is resilience:

  • Resilience may be described as the ability to overcome challenging circumstances. Resilience is the capacity to bounce back. Older people are able to capitalize on their long experience of living to continue to grow, and enjoy life, in spite of the difficult challenges confronted along the way.

SUMMARIZING this second part of “what it should be”

The elders are prepared and ready to get involved. Our increased longevity has opened up opportunities for more civic, social and economic contributions — ranging from mentoring and volunteerism to second careers and continuing education.

Older adults have historically made a meaningful difference in their communities through civic engagement activities; however, institutions that could benefit from the knowledge, wisdom, and skills older adults offer are not making an effort to use those skills in ways that could help local communities. There’s still more to be done.

  1. What can we do to get there?

 We live in era defined by many challenges from global warming to global terrorism but none is as certain and as permanent as global aging, and none is likely to have such a large and enduring effect on the shape of all societies.  Therefore, we need to do two main things

a)  Shift societal views of older adults from burdens to assets.

b) Present long life as an opportunity for continuous growth, not as a late life process of decline.

National aging organizations are realizing the need to get into the act, to change current views, to challenge exiting ageism no matter how covert or disguised it might be:Eight national aging organizations (among them AARP, the Gerontological Society of America, and the American Society on Aging) have formed a partnership to improve society’s views of the aging process, and to encourage the aged to participate and get involved in their communities

Reframing Aging” is the name of their latest campaign. Other people talk about  RECLAIMING AGING  or   Redefining Aging;  just this month, a book by AARP’s CEO JoAnn Jenkins has been published, it’s title?    “Disrupt Aging”

We urgently need to join this campaign. I say we need to completely ban from our discourse all the “D –words” about aging (DECLINE, DETERIORATION, DISEASE…)  and substitute them for “C-words”: the ones we respectfully offer older persons, the ones that welcome and accept them and point the way to the “new aging”:  CONNECTEDNESS,  CHOICE,  COMMITMENT,  CURIOSITY,  COMPASSION, COURAGE,  CREATIVITY,  CARING,  CONTRIBUTIONS.

You will agree that we could spend a long time discussing the meaning and potential of each one of these C  Words.

What are the antidotes to conquer ageism?

I’ll mention three main ones:  AWARENESS, ASSIMILATION AND ACTIVISM

Awareness  is the critical starting point where we acknowledge our own prejudices and fears about age and aging. We need to stay always vigilant in order not to buy into the ongoing negative propaganda we might be fed. Rather, we need to document and share with our communities the life stories of our elders. That will assure that we increase our communities’ awareness of the valuable lessons provided by our elders.

The second antidote is assimilation/ integration: the need to connect with people of all ages. An equitable society for all ages requires intergenerational collaboration. Older adults need to stay actively engaged in their communities. They have an untapped wealth of life experiences and skills. We should capitalize on their knowledge for the benefit of younger generations.

Finally,  Activism: We need to watch for ageist behaviors and attitudes in and around us; challenge them, and create language and models that support every stage of life.

The secret to changing hopelessness into hope is to act.  If we can make a difference for one person, we are acting.  If we give as much of ourselves as we can, we are making a difference.
If marriage equality is here to stay, why not age equality?  If gay pride has gone mainstream, why not age pride?   Longevity is here to stay.   Everyone is aging. Ending ageism benefits us all. Former television news anchor Hugh Downs, now 95, said: “I want to live long enough so that when someone says about me, `There is an old man,’ I know it will be a compliment.”

And I’ll end on another personal note. I said at the beginning that I’m a teacher. I get to share some of my views with students, but, often, I’m also enormously enriched by the views and wisdom of our youngsters.

One of the assignments for the course I mentioned is to write an essay entitled “My Good Old Age.”   The students have to interview at least 3 older persons and get their views on aging. Then they have to do a personal reflection by projecting themselves 5o years forward (bringing together what we’ve been learning in class, and what the interviews have told them). The essay has to be written in the first person.

I like to share some lines from one of this years’ “My Good Old Age” essays:

“I believe that aging is the greatest amusement ride you can take and that you must live life to its fullest potential.Sometimes our older bodies might not want to keep up with us, they do slow down a bit (or a lot), sometimes we find bumps in the road, but this does not mean that we stop moving forward and trying other ways. We are lead to believe that in our old age we do not have choices, that aging is not a success story that we should celebrate. But we need to celebrate, we want to…  All our years of learning, knowledge, experiences… should be celebrated. And we know that we have to always be on our toes, always willing to learn to do more…  we still have a lot to look forward to, our open minds need to be constantly replenished with new ideas, there are many roads to travel.I do not want to be defined by how old I am but by how much I’ve contributed, how much I’ve shared, how much I’ve learned, how much I loved, how much I’ve given of myself…”

Incredibly amazing wishes for a 20 year old.

I hope I can live to such high expectations.