Abigail Trafford - Author, Journalist and Public Speaker


Ten Resolutions to change the culture of aging

By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Another year, another New Year's resolution: Do push-ups, lose 10 pounds, read Tolstoy, walk the dog more. . . . What if we were to make a really big resolution? What if we vowed -- as individuals and a society -- to change the culture of aging?

Here are 10 ways to get started:

1.Look forward.

The stereotype of aging is agonizing decline. But because of health gains, there's a lot of good living to do once you join the AARP generation. A new stage has emerged in the life cycle after midlife that can last 20, 30 or more years. There's no avoiding death, but there's time for a personal renaissance with loving relationships and meaningful work.

2.Plan beyond money.

The only question many people ask themselves as they approach the "golden years" is: Do I have enough money to retire? But the first question should be: What am I going to do in these years? With whom? Where? Only then can you answer: How can I make sure I have enough?

3.Change the language.

Retire the word "retire," which implies withdrawing from life. Even if you leave your job, you are likely to continue to work, or go to school, or join a theater group. Also, be careful about calling people "senior" or "elderly." Last year, a Virginia newspaper referred to a 65-year-old woman as elderly, prompting this response from C.J. Borden, 67, a former flight attendant and community activist in Strasburg, Va.: "At first I laughed and then I got irritated. . . . There are very few 65-year-old people that I would call 'elderly.' "

4.Start dreaming.

What do you want to do next? It's time to loosen up and imagine different scenarios for the future. Teenagers do this naturally -- one day they want to be a doctor, the next day a chef, the next day an astronaut. A whole education system is aimed at helping youngsters figure out what they want to do in life. The same kind of infrastructure is needed to help older men and women figure out what they want to do in this new stage of life.

5.Redefine work.

Surveys show that the majority of boomers plan to work at least part time in these years -- for economic and psychological reasons. But the jobs aren't there for them. One issue is that many older men and women want flexible work schedules. Phyllis Moen, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota, suggests breaking down the traditional workweek into 10-hour units: Some would work four units, some two units. This would also benefit parents of young children.

6.Open your heart.

Close relationships, research shows, are the key to aging well. In the longevity paradox, older men and women can expect to live many more years -- but they also know that it could end tomorrow. As the 19th-century Swiss philosopher Henri-Frédéric Amiel advised, when time is short, "be swift to love and make haste to be kind."

7.Steward the family.

With an activist generation of grandparents, the American family is stronger. The four-generation family is fast becoming the norm: young children, parents, grandparents and frail adult relatives. There are now two healthy generations to take care of dependent family members. The grandparent role is to love extravagantly; to support, supplement and sometimes substitute for stressed parents; to pass down values, family lore and the lessons of history.

8.Watch out for depression.

We all know about diet and exercise -- but we don't pay enough attention to mental health. Nearly 20 percent of older Americans have a psychiatric problem but few get care, according to government figures. The highest suicide rates of any age group are in white men over 65. Sometimes people suffer a clinical depression for the first time after age 50. Grieving is normal; depression is a disease that needs to be treated.

9.Expose ageism.

Prejudice against older people is insidious. In a recent study by the International Longevity Center in New York, researchers found bias and negative stereotyping in many arenas, from health care to the media. Discrimination in the workplace is so prevalent that AARP advises people of a certain age not to list age or graduation dates on their résumé.

10.Put aging on the political agenda.

It's not just about managing Social Security and Medicare. It's also about changing laws and creating opportunities to tap into the potential of an unprecedented cohort of vital older Americans.

If we do all these things, future generations will have a map to follow when they come to this newly discovered territory of longevity. ·

© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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