May 2012

coming to the 2012 Ko Festival on July 8

I've been invited to speak on the opening night of KoFest, an arts festival in Amherst, Massachusetts, whose theme this year is "An irreverent and intergenerational look at age & aging."  The banner promises "outrageous humor I puppets I juggling I uncanny beauty". That leaves me humor, so I'm hard at work at something approaching a monologue.

The KoFest blurb reads: "Author/journalist Ashton Applewhite is interested in why we’re so ambivalent about the prospect of much longer lives. She was too, until she learned more. Her proposition?  Fight ageism, not aging.  (read more . . .)


What’s it take to become an “old person in training?”

I first encountered this phrase of geriatrician Joanne Lynn’s in 2008, andI liked it right off the bat. It’s a straightforward way to bridge the us/them divide, to connect empathically with our future selves. As Simone de Beauvoir put it: “If we do not know who we are going to be, we cannot know who we are: Let us recognize ourselves in this old man or in that old woman. It must be done if we are to take upon ourselves the entirety of our human state.”


part of the challenge is tactical

As I learn more about the landscape of aging in America, I’m beginning to appreciate the pragmatic aspects of becoming an old person in training. It reminds me of a touchy-feely exercise that a facilitator friend of mine described: imagine walking into a room to meet your 90-year-old self.  What would the older you have to say?  Would she appreciate the choices you’d made, or wring her hands at your short-sightedness?  

She’d almost certainly advise you to work longer and save more. To make and sustain friendships with people of all ages. To use your brain. To get off your butt. (A study just cited by Michelle Carlson of the Johns Hopkins Center on Aging and Health showed that walking a total of only 90 minutes a week improved executive function.) If you want to “age in place,” as most of us do, to start thinking about what kind of housing and community would support that choice. Diversify, as if your life course were a stock portfolio, because the one-career /one-marriage / one hobby path won’t hold up across nine decades. Design your routines and surroundings to reinforce good choices, whether it’s setting up an automatic savings deposit or parking at the far end of the lot.  


the other part is imaginative

The more interesting part of the challenge is imagining the kind of old person I hope to become, and how I can help make that happen. Trying to envision that 90-year-old me is scary because I’ll be so physically diminished, but liberating because I’d like to try and shape that destiny as much as I can.  In her book A Long Bright Future, Stanford psychologist Laura Carstensen puts it well:

We must try to generate realistic, humane visions of our future selves, and to imagine what we will truly want to do and will make us happy when we are old. Once we do that, we can begin to set goals that will help us become those people – to do the work and make the changes and sacrifices necessary in the present to move us toward those goals. If we can’t picture ourselves teaching, laughing, loving and contributing to society when we’re 90 and 100, then good luck is about the only thing that will get us there.

New times call for new scripts – a tall order for a species that evolved to choose present gratification over future well-being. At a minimum, we need to broaden the public conversation around the promise of longevity and the pitfalls of ageism. So, as an old person in training, I’m talking and writing about it.

you could know now what they knew then

At 50, Karl Pillemer had a revelation about his career.  After 25 years as gerontologist, he found himself focused almost entirely on problems like elder abuse and isolation: “the Book of Job for older people,” as he put it at the 2012 Age Boom seminar for journalists. This conformed to the general portrayal of olders as frail and debilitated, and was reinforced by researchers “because focusing on problems is how we get funding.” But not only had this stopped feeling fulfilling, it didn’t jibe with his actual experience, and so an outreach project was born.

“First of all, I was meeting lots of vibrant, intensively active, enjoying-life elders. Also, there’s this fact that older people tend to be happier than younger ones, and that in general mental health improves with age,” he recounted. “Despite decades studying the problems of older people, I had a nagging suspicion that there was more they could tell me about how to life the good life.” That second sentence is a quote from what the outreach project turned into:  a book called 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans. It’s based on over a thousand two-hour interviews with a diverse group of men and women over age 65, many way over. (The oldest, 108, told Pillemer, “I remember my first day of work so well, because it was they day World War One ended.”) 

The project reflects the gerontologist’s understanding that late life, like adolescence or middle age, has to be seen as a stage of development, and that two things make older people developmentally different. One is their limited time horizon, which helps olders make better decisions about how to use their time. This boundary makes it easier to live in the moment, which in turn makes people happier. The second thing that sets this cohort apart is their extraordinary life experience, especially those around for long enough to have lived through the Depression, World War II, and the civil rights struggle. Pillemer was motivated by a fundamental assumption: “Older people are the most credible experts available to us on how to life well through hard times.” Since no one had systematically solicited their practical advice, he set himself the task, asking intimate and profound questions like,  “What is the purpose of life?” “What do you wish you’d done differently?”  “What do you regret?” and “What are you afraid of?”  Here is the essence of their responses.

Lesson #1: Live like your life is short. One woman turning 99 told Pillemer, “I don’t know what happened. The next thing you know, you’re a hundred!” What does this involve?  Find work you love (instead of opting for money or security, surprising counsel from veterans of the Depression). Say it now. Travel more.

Lesson 2: Happiness is a choice not a condition, a matter of personal agency. Younger think happiness occurs because of things, said Pillemer, “but when they’re older, people know that happiness occurs in spite of things.” This is quite consistent with cognitive behavioral therapy, he pointed out, “and they’ve come upon it naturally.” In other words, age itself confers very effective coping mechanisms upon ordinary people. These weren’t bodhisattvas or philosophers. “Everyone over 70 has occurred the kind of losses that younger people worry about. If you can’t make happiness a choice, you’re going to have a lot of trouble finding happiness,” said Pillemer. The choice was often expressed in terms of a turning point, as in the case of a woman who grieved for two years over the death of her 22-year-old daughter, Bubbles, then made a conscious decision to pull herself out of her tailspin. Instead of worrying or holding onto grudges, she and her peers recommend savoring the small things, letting go, and practicing gratitude. 

Lesson #3: Aging is better than you think it is. “Our fears are not borne out by the oldest Americans,” says Pillemer. Treat your body like you’ll need it for 100 years. Learn to be social (even, or perhaps especially, if you’re an introvert). Find multiple ways — as worker, spouse, volunteer, caregiver - to connect with the world and stay in contact. Respondents, especially widowers, strongly endorsed moving into senior communities.  

Lesson 4: Take a lifelong view of relationships with children.  People used to die reasonably soon after their last child left home, Pillemer pointed out. Now, in an unprecedented shift, baby boomers are likely to have twice as much time with their adult kids than they spent with them as children. Paradoxically, higher divorce and lower birth rates mean that boomers confront a higher risk of social isolation than the oldest Americans now.  The moral? Cultivate family relationships. Spend time with the kids. Avoid rifts. “The most unhappy people I talked to were those who were permanently estranged from a child.”

Lesson 5: How to avoid regrets.  When it came to what they wish they’d done differently, Pillemer expected pangs over business deals gone wrong or educations unfinished. Instead, over and over again, people said, “I wish I hadn’t spent so much time worrying.” A group that married young and often quickly, respondents frequently advised putting off marriage. They consistently endorsed risk for younger people, and were often envious of the opportunities that younger women enjoy today.  “Step out.” “Don’t get stuck in a box.” “Don’t try to please everyone.” “Say yes to opportunities.” In other words, it’s not mistakes that seem to haunt, but opportunities not acted upon.  Not that many people seemed haunted, which may reflect another developmental change in older people: they process negative information less deeply than positive information.

These fundamental lessons were universal across class and race, “but the ways people got there differed,” Pillemer observed.  For example, African American respondents had had to deal with discrimination on their path to happiness. He found nuanced differences across cultures. Another observation was that the older people were, the less they feared death. “All the time, interviewing these people, I asked, ‘Where’s the terror?’” Pillemer recounted. “Another lesson was ‘Don’t worry so much about dying, because we don’t worry about it.’” 

I wrote admiringly about Pillemer's Cornell Legacy Project earlier this year, but took him to task for aiming the book expressly at young readers, which struck me as a little, ahem, ageist. That’s probably unfair, since in his talk Pillemer defined ageism compellingly and described some of the ways in which it works powerfully against the interests of the old. (One example was the extent of age segregation in our society. “Americans are more likely to have friend of different race than friend 10 years older or younger,” he said.) I’d argue that people in mid-life stand to benefit the most from 30 Lessons, especially from the advice to worry less about aging and dying. That makes it a lot more appealing to become “an old person in training” and to think clearly about the decades ahead – the topic of my next post.