Thinking about aging often brings to mind physical transformations: the weakening of bones and muscles, the slow fade of energy, the aches, and the pains. But as our bodies change with age, so do our minds. It’s true that many elders experience some level of memory loss, a series of mental changes known collectively as ‘cognitive aging.’ Although some skills remain stable over the course of a normal life (vocabulary and general knowledge, for instance, are largely unaffected by the aging process), deterioration in other thought processes is a wholly normal and natural part of the aging process. Short-term memory, as well as the abilities to process new information, think critically, and apply logical reasoning, are all liable to erode over the years, worn away like a rock smoothed and polished by a river’s flow.
Prejudice against elders, known as ageism, tends to center on the cognitive results of aging. Popular culture is rife with negative stereotypes about aging and portrayals of the elderly; in books, movies, and on TV, we are encouraged to think of elders as harmlessly bumbling at best, emotionally unstable and dangerously incompetent at worst. Older characters— when they are given screen time at all— are often noted to be in scenes where they are the butt of a joke. According to a New Yorker article on the topic, “the baldest forms of ageism include addressing older people in “elderspeak”—high, loud tones and a simplified vocabulary—and tarring them with nouns like “coot” and “geezer” or adjectives like “decrepit.”
Of all the “isms” (sexism, racism, etc.) ageism is one of the least thought about and discussed, but efforts to push back against it and reject negative perceptions of aging and the elderly have begun to gain traction. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) recently launched a campaign entitled “Disrupt Aging” to fight the idea that someone might be “too old” to learn new skills, perform certain activities, or participate in certain conversations.
In addition, our notion of the elderly as prisoners of their own minds is becoming less and less grounded in truth. A recent study published in the journal Psychological Aging showed conclusive “improvement in overall emotional wellbeing with age.” The same study also highlighted a direct correlation between mindset and mortality. Elders who experienced “relatively more positive than negative emotions in everyday life” lived longer and were healthier over the course of their senescence. Gerontologists— those who study aging and the elderly— call this “the paradox of aging.” Instead of succumbing to the weight of our years, we are actually more likely to gain emotional resilience as we grow older. We become less likely to suffer over life’s annoyances and stumbling blocks and more likely to seek out contentment in its pleasures, both great and small. Not only that, but the greater our resilience, the longer we are likely to live.
Over the course of a year spent following the lives of six New York City-area residents over the age of 85, reporter John Leland found evidence of the mental transformations that come with age. Leland writes of his subjects, “all had known loss and survived” and that “each showed a matter-of-fact resilience that would shame most 25-year-olds.” The elders in Leland’s story speak of pleasures small and large: visits from loved ones, pictures of new grandchildren, taking care of houseplants, or learning new rules to a game. They do not speak of loss, pain, or sadness; in fact, according to one Mrs. Wong mentioned in the piece, “we seldom talk about bad things. We keep ourselves [happy].
When does old age start? Well, if age is just a number, this “number” differs according to your own age; 60% of people under the age of 30 find late 50-year-olds elderly. For those in their 60s, old age begins at 74. This definition of old age also differs according to gender. Women are more likely to be liberal when it comes to defining old age. For most of them, it starts at the age of 70, while men define 66 as the start of old age.
Age discrimination is not a new thing, but it has accelerated due to advancements in technology and wider reach of social media. People are judged more than ever. Recently there was a roar over the body shaming of an elderly woman on social media, when her picture from the changing room, obtained without her knowledge was shared.
Most of us haven’t come to terms with our aging process. In our society, where youthfulness is glorified, there is a whole industry out there taking advantage of this vulnerability, selling us anti-aging products and services and running advertisements to imprint in our minds that even a wrinkle could doom your future job prospective.
We have some wonderful resources for your physical and mental wellbeing regardless of your age:
How to look after your mental wellbeing in later life
How to stay fit and healthy in later life
How to stay sharp in later life
Toronto Memory program
With age comes wisdom and an experiment suggests that while university-age participants were quicker to make choices which led to immediate rewards, another group aged 60 to 80 were much more adept at taking strategic decisions which took future stages into account. Not all of the aging population experiences cognitive decline. There is a whole segment of ‘superagers’ or the ‘wellderly’, people who are being increasingly studied by scientists in order to uncover the mystery of their sharp memory in their later years.
Our tendency to think and speak negatively about the process of cognitive aging might, therefore, be unfounded. Younger people have more to look forward to than we have to fear. Not only that, but we also have the opportunity to learn about strength and emotional resilience from the elders in our life before we take their place. In conversations about the ‘life lessons’ to be learned from our elders, we’re often thinking in practical, tangible terms: how to manage money, say, or how to buy a house, get a job, manage relationships with our families, spouses, co-workers, and friends. As it turns out, our parents and grandparents have just as much to teach as about facing inwards as they do about facing outwards; that is to say, we can learn just as much from our elders about living with ourselves as we can about living in the world.