In his book 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans, Karl Pillemer asks a powerful question: “What if our views about old people and aging are absolutely wrong?”
Pillemer surveyed over one thousand older Americans, he calls “the experts,” about the lessons they’ve learned in growing old and a new image began to replace his own preconceived notions: Being older is much better than we think it is.
Ageism is rampant in our society, says Pillemer. Most Americans tend to have little tolerance for older people and very few reservations about harboring negative attitudes toward older people.
Experiencing ageism first hand
I experienced ageism first hand recently while having dinner with my young cousin who just became a new mom. The conversation turned to exercise and workout programs. My cousin told us she and her friends like to laugh at the old ladies in Zumba class!
I’m pretty sure she wished she could have taken it back when she remembered she was sitting across from two “old ladies”—my mother and myself.
“I’m one of those old ladies in Zumba,” I protested. I got hooked on Zumba two years ago and now I take classes three times a week.
My cousin started backpedaling. “Oh, I meant real old ladies.”
“You mean like me?” my mom teased.
There was nowhere for my cousin to hide. She’d revealed her prejudice. Now it was up to me to re-educate her.
“I think it’s awesome that old ladies are getting up off their booties and shaking them in Zumba,” I told her. “You should be cheering for them instead of laughing at them because someday, hopefully, you’ll be one of those old ladies shaking your booty!”
It’s hard for young people to imagine themselves as old, Pillemer says. The aged are treated as a different species from the young; it’s as if they’ve always been old. People are incapable of holding in their minds the reality of their own aging as a process. Young people have remarkable difficulty conceiving of their lives a half century from now.
I often hear young people moaning about how old they feel when they turn 40! I’d like to introduce them to my friend, Rosie, an 81-year old great-grandma in my Zumba class. She has such a zest for life. Every Tuesday and Thursday morning she comes strutting into class with a cheery smile on her face and an update on her recent travels. Rosie always stands right behind our teacher and follows along for the entire hour. I pray I have her energy at her age, and so should my cousin.
Pillemer says the irony is that younger people propagate a system of prejudice that will only hurt themselves, assuming they are lucky enough to live long and grow old. So how does a youth-oriented culture like ours come to terms with aging?
Instead of imagining what late life must be like, we need to be informed by what individuals who are already there actually can tell us about it.
What makes being older better?
Two things make being old better:
- There’s a serenity or sense of calm and easiness in daily life that was unexpected.
- Aging becomes a quest, almost like the adventure of exploring a new land.
I have a suggestion for my cousin. The next time she feels like laughing at the old ladies in her Zumba class, she should go up and talk to them. If they’re anything like my friend Rosie, she’ll find them quite inspiring.