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.