We had a wintry mix last week, and as I put on my boots, I thought, “I don’t want to fall.” “You sound old,” I said to myself. And then I thought, “Why does not wanting to fall make me old? I think it makes me smart.”
Risk-taking is highest in adolescents and tends to decrease as we age. Is that because older adults are more fearful, or because they are more experienced? Being cautious and prudent should make me wise, so why did I see it as “being old?” Because I am ageist.
The term “ageism” was coined in 1969 by physician/gerontologist Robert Neil Butler, who was the first Director of the National Institute on Aging. Butler defined “ageism” as:
1) Prejudicial attitudes towards older people, old age, and the aging process,
2) Discriminatory practices toward older people, and
3) Institutional practices and policies that perpetuate negative stereotypes about older adults.
Unlike more obvious forms of stereotyping, such as racism and sexism, ageist stereotypes are seldom corrected, so individuals grow up believing them, even as they themselves become older. Ageism is so commonplace in today’s society that we don’t even realize the stereotypes implicit in many things we say and feel.
All of this sounds theoretical, but in fact, it’s quite personal. Studies show that older adults who equate aging with becoming useless, helpless and devalued, die earlier, are less likely to seek preventive medical care, and are more likely to suffer memory loss and poor physical functioning.
When stereotypes are positive, however, when older adults view aging as a time of wisdom, self-realization and satisfaction, the opposite is true. In fact, people with positive age stereotypes live 7.5 years longer than those with negative stereotypes. That is a bigger benefit than not smoking!
So what does this mean for me? If I want to thrive as I age, I’ll need to be mindful of negative stereotypes in my thoughts, feelings and views on aging. I’ll need to change the paradigm. My boots are a good start. Being cautious about falling is not being old, it’s being wise.
What makes a great ad, great? This Polish Christmas ad hits it out of the ballpark. You hardly realize it’s for Allegro, an online auction platform. You’re busy smiling and crying at the same time. So why has this ad resonated with over four million people? Yes, there’s a cute dog, but that’s not it. In a world where advertising repeatedly marginalizes and stereotypes older adults, this ad stands out precisely because it is not ageist.
The elderly man shops online, learns new skills, travels independently, makes plans and implements them. This is what older adults do throughout the world, but it’s not how they are often portrayed. Instead, they’re stereotyped, made fun of, diminished. Why do so many people love this ad? Because it is respectful, it is truthful, it is funny, it is sweet. If you haven’t seen it, sit back and enjoy. If you have seen it, think of someone and share it.
In “The Year of Magical Thinking,” Joan Didion eloquently describes how grief distorts thinking and creates thoughts that defy logic. She describes this process as “magical thinking.” I think some people approach moving with magical thinking as well.
In psychology, magical thinking refers to the belief that one’s thoughts can make things happen, or that thinking something is the same as doing it.
In moving, magical thinking is the conviction that I want these things to fit in my new home — so they will, or I will hand carry everything to my new home, or downsizing will be fast and easy. I can see why people prefer to think magically. Moving creates stress and feelings of loss of control. This is especially true for older adults who may be leaving the family home, starting a new lifestyle, experiencing health issues or the loss of loved ones. Magical thinking relieves anxiety and restores a sense of control. Is it any wonder clients are reluctant to let go of magical thinking?
In comes the Senior Move Manager, with floor plans and reality checks to demonstrate why our thinking is correct, and our client’s is not. Do we really “win” by telling someone their furniture won’t fit, their move plan won’t work or that unpacking 100 cartons by themselves will be overwhelming? Surely, we don’t build trust or reduce anxiety — two of our goals — by telling clients they are wrong. I’ve been thinking about this, and perhaps the solution to magical thinking lies in storytelling.
Storytelling is an ancient art, but in recent years it has been recognized for its unique value in assisting discovery and enhancing learning. Stories help us connect factual information to feelings, and make sense of abstract concepts by providing tangible, concrete examples. If stories bypass linear thinking to assist with whole brain learning, perhaps they can bypass magical thinking, also.
Instead of “Your things won’t fit,” perhaps we should say “Let me tell you about a client who moved recently…”. The protagonist of our stories should not be ourselves, but our clients — competent people who create an image of how things will work because they want and need it to be that way. These magical thoughts serve our clients well by reducing their anxiety and making them feel in control. Our stories need to show real people who faced challenges and overcame them. Clients don’t demand that moves be perfect. They demand that they emerge from the move experience feeling intact and whole. Stories can be the bridge that helps this happen.
Am I certain this approach will work? There is no guarantee that storytelling will successfully combat magical thinking, but there is plenty of evidence that telling people they’re wrong does not work. Instead, let’s provide a platform where clients can relate to the emotions of moving and through the experience of others, arrive at better decisions for themselves. If we learn how to help clients better plan and prepare for their move, or better accept the consequences when moves that are less than perfect, that would indeed be magical.
At the nail salon, I saw an 80+ year old woman getting her nails done. Her hands were wrinkled and veined, her knuckles were enlarged, but her nails — each a different color — were spectacular. I was startled that a woman her age would want nail art, and then thought, “Why am I assuming that fancy nails are for young people only?”
Liquid nail polish was invented in 1907, and tastes have evolved ever since. The French manicure came from Paris in the mid 70s. Nail art emerged in the 80s. Today, women use nail art for fun and self-expression. I guess I figured elderly women didn’t crave fun and self-expression. I wasn’t just ageist; I was wrong.
Last spring, NAILS Magazine, an industry publication for nail technicians, featured a number of women aged 55 and over who indulge in nail art at the salon. One of them is 87-year old Prat Messer. Introduced to nail art this spring, she began “hanging out” in the lobby of her retirement community much more than she used to. “People were noticing my nails even in the elevator!” she said. Apparently, nail art is more than self-expression; it increases opportunities for social interaction.
Naomi Koshkin Friedman, 95, says that getting her nails done makes her feel young and alive again. “Everyone in the retirement community is envious… they don’t have the guts to express their inner artistic side like me. Where I live, they talk about me. Let them talk.”
Elderly women aren’t supposed to be adventurous, spontaneous, frivolous or outrageous. They’re supposed to be invisible. Nail art makes them visible again.
Nail art combats boredom — one of the greatest challenges of Long Term Care. It’s simple and low cost. It seems perfect for inter-generational programs. So why isn’t nail art commonplace in Long Term Care settings? Probably because people like me assume that 80 and 90-year olds want boring nails.
The National Center for Creative Aging and organizations like it are dedicated to “fostering an understanding of the vital relationship between creative expression and quality of life of older people.” Creative expression doesn’t require that individuals have exceptional talent or physical prowess. It doesn’t require expensive programs. Creative expression as we age is within everyone’s reach. It’s at the tip of your fingers.
Photos courtesy NAILS Magazine; nail designs by Athena Elliot, SPAthena Salon, Houston, TX.
Top photo is from Facebook/Angela Cooke via Love What Matters
I ordered a book on BookBub that I vaguely remembered as a comedy starring Hugh Grant — Four Weddings and a Funeral. Instead, however, I ordered a book titled Four Funerals and a Wedding. It was very different from what I expected. Which just goes to show that sometimes you don’t get what you want, but you get what you need.
Four Funerals and a Wedding, by Jill Smolowe, is a book about resilience. A fifty something woman talks about the deaths of her husband, sister, mother-in-law, and mother — all of which occurred in a 15-month time frame. God willing, most of us won’t go through this much loss in so short a time, but most of us will go through this much loss over time.
If you’re a baby boomer, chances are you’ll be burying your parents (if they are still with you), your aunts and uncles, and sometimes, your friends. We don’t want to talk about it, although while we are in the midst of the experience, it’s often all we do talk about.
In spite of its title, Four Funerals and a Wedding is not about dying. It’s about living through loss, and developing your unique perspective on how to deal with your grief, because there is no set formula on how to behave.
One story that stayed with me begins when Jill sees an acquaintance she knows to be recently widowed. Jill avoids her, not because she wants to, but because she doesn’t know what to say. Three years later, Jill is “that woman” — the widow — and she wonders if friends are avoiding her because they too don’t know what to say.
She also talks about how people react when you share bad news. Some give advice. Some insist on addressing issues that may not be your priorities. Most don’t know what to say. But some, and these were the ones Jill especially valued, asked simply how could they help.
Four Funerals and a Wedding is not maudlin or tragic or heroic or inspiring. It is one person’s journey through grief, and the operative word here is “through.” When Jill remarries a year after her husband’s death, she is clear that you don’t stop loving or grieving for someone who died just because you learn to love someone else.
I wasn’t sure what I thought about this book when I finished it, but when a friend wrote recently that tests showed several ominous “hot spots,” I asked simply, “How can I help?”
Sometimes, you get a book that is not what you want, but is what you need.
I overheard a conversation. “How are your parents doing?” one asked.
“Oh, you know, they’re deteriorating,” said the other. “That’s it?” I thought. “That’s how she sums up her parents… They’re deteriorating? What about, “They’re facing some challenges but they’re coping ” or “They’re declining and struggling to maintain their independence” or “All things considered, they’re pretty resilient…” . Almost anything was better than reducing her parents to a short description of passive diminishment. And that’s when I thought about my dog.
Poppy is an old dog, very old for a greyhound. Her regal face is mostly white, and her deep brown eyes that once reached into your soul when she stared at you, are clouded with cataracts. The muscles in her once powerful hind legs are atrophied. That, combined with arthritis, makes transitions difficult. Often, she needs help getting into bed, steadying herself on stairs, or simply getting up from a nap. She has lost weight, so her ribs are prominent even for a greyhound. Her coat sheds constantly. Her failing kidneys cause her to drink more, and this in turn results in numerous accidents since she can’t move fast enough to get outside. She takes a long time to respond to simple commands like, “Come,” which we attribute to a combination of slower mental processing speed, hearing impairment and mobility issues. She sleeps most of the day and tires quickly. Although we care for Poppy, we get little back from her compared to the funny, affectionate dog she once was.
Yet, we are OK with our role as caretakers of a senior dog. Caring for Poppy is neither sad nor frustrating — it simply is.
If asked how she is doing, I would say, “She’s an old dog, but she’s doing great.” I wouldn’t say, “She’s deteriorating.” So why are we so much kinder when we describe elderly pets, than when we describe elderly parents? Why is it so much easier to care for pets we love as they age, than for people?
We see caring for elderly family members as an obligatory, unwelcome burden. We get angry with the physical tasks of caregiving, embarrassed by loved ones’ lack of hygiene, frustrated by their increasing need for support. We are so saddened by the diminution of who they once were, it is hard to accept or take pleasure in who they are now. Yet, we have none of these emotions with our elderly pets.
Recently, I overhead another conversation. A group of siblings were talking about a tiny dog, now 14, with whom they had grown up. “We put up a gate so she doesn’t fall downstairs. She’s incontinent and pees on the rug. She’s lost weight, her hair is thin, she’s lost most of her teeth. But she still plays with her toys and scampers around. She’s a happy little dog.”
We care for our elderly pets with patience and compassion because we remember who they were, and we accept who they are. Although there is loss when animals age, there is not sadness in the caregiving, and there is often joy. Yet human aging is so enmeshed with anger and sadness, it is hard to find joy. It seems we’ve internalized ageism — those of us who are aging and our caregivers as well. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but maybe an old dog can teach us.
We have a ten pound mirror. It’s not that it weighs ten pounds. It’s a floor length mirror surrounded by engraved industrial wood.
It’s a work of art, really. But that’s not why it’s special. It’s special because it’s a ten pound mirror.
There is something wrong with the optics. You walk by it, and then you come back and look at yourself again, and you look good, really good. Not totally different, just a little bit better than the real you. About ten pounds better.
We tend to be so hard on ourselves physically. Maybe we need more ten pound mirrors — a way to be gentler with ourselves, less critical of how we look. More self-acceptance, not because we are perfect, but because imperfection is OK. Maybe we all need our optics to be a little bit off.
But perhaps I am looking at this too narrowly. A ten pound mirror doesn’t need to be a “thing.’ Perhaps a ten pound mirror can also be a person — someone who helps us see ourselves a little bit better than we really are. It could be a parent, a spouse, a sibling, a friend, a child… someone who sees in us things we don’t see ourselves, someone who sees us as the person we wish we were. And because of what they reflect back to us, we see ourselves as a little bit better as well.
I know I’ve had people in my life who were ten pound mirrors for me, and I am so very grateful. I wonder if I have been a ten pound mirror for someone else. Are people who act as ten pound mirrors aware of the gift they give? If so, then being a ten pound mirror for someone else ends up being a ten pound mirror for yourself, as well. Sometimes the person we really are, is actually the person we want to be.
When you do a long distance walk, you learn a lot about hydration. Hydration is what we used to call drinking, but it’s a lot more complicated. Drinking is taking a liquid into your mouth and swallowing. Hydration involves what you drink, when you drink, how much you drink, and even what you drink out of. Who knew drinking could be this complex?
When I grew up, you drank water. With hydration, water is not good enough; you need uber water. The choices are mind boggling. There are sport drinks, energy drinks, vitamin drinks, carbonated drinks, non-carbonated drinks, flavored drinks, even drinks that help with alertness and motor skills. Different activities require different types of water. With hydration, you need to do research before you buy your drink.
When I grew up, you drank when you were thirsty. With hydration, drinking when you are thirsty is not good enough. You need to drink before you are thirsty. If you wait until you are thirsty, you are already dehydrated.
When I grew up, you did not worry about how much you drank per day. With hydration, quantity is very important. In fact, a whole industry has developed of bottles that keep tabs on how much you drink each day, and not just bottles… now there are mobile apps! Apps to help you keep tabs on how much you are drinking, apps that send reminders to drink more and apps that sound alarms when you are under-hydrated (think iDrate). In the olden days, drinking was a pleasure. With hydration, drinking is an obligation.
When I grew up, you drank water from a fountain, a thermos or a canteen. It didn’t seem to matter what you drank from. With hydration, what you drink out of is very important. There are features to look for that enhance your drink –like infusers, filters, and refrigeration assemblies — and features to avoid — like bottles with BPAs — a harmful industrial chemical. There are transparent water bottles, opaque bottles, ergonomically shaped bottles, bottles with straws attached, bottles with hooks and handles, plastic bottles, metal bottles, glass bottles, even soft bladder bottles that fit in a backpack. CamelBak, the best known hydration backpack system, has reservoirs, bite valves and bite valve covers, filters, filter adapters, tubes, tube traps, and cleaning kits. With hydration, you need a user’s manual to figure out how to use the container you drink from.
Between types of drinks, how to manage intake and containers to drink out of, hydration is a multi-billion dollar business. Drinking wasn’t just simpler, it was a lot less expensive.
Of course, hydration has a flip side — elimination. There hasn’t been much change in elimination over the years — but that is the topic for a different blog post.
I don’t understand mid-life orphans. They complain about care giving responsibilities and then, when their parents pass away, they lament about being orphans. They say they feel bereft, unmoored, devastated by life without parents. Don’t they realize how lucky they are? Having elderly parents is a privilege some of us never had. Read more on “The Last Time I Was Mothered” »
I have been looking at my pile of orphan earrings, earrings without partners, wondering why I keep them. It’s true that a lost earring does sometimes show up, but many have been mateless for years. Why do I keep even those single earrings?