Looking at Aging with Fresh Eyes

As senior populations soar, it’s past time to reevaluate exactly what it means to be old.

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Remember the old saying, "You're only as old as you feel?" It needs to be replaced. Everyone, and I mean everyone, has some bad-feeling moments as they cross into their 60s, 70s, and 80s. No—the accurate catch-phrase for aging, particularly among active baby boomers, should be, "You're only as old as you act."

Kay Van Norman, an aging and wellness consultant (when she's not riding her horse in and around Bozeman, Mont.) remembers a couple of events in her life about 10 years ago that marked a branch in the road of her own development and attitude toward aging.

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Van Norman's mother had a stroke about 10 years ago. "The change in her attitude really amazed me. She had been really active before the stroke. She was an outdoors woman and ranch woman. But afterward, she kept saying, 'Oh, I can't do this, I've had a stroke.' Well, that's just wrong."

Van Norman also faced her own physical challenge when leg injuries caused her doctors to recommend that she give up dancing—a passion that had been part of her core identity. She heeded their advice, but only for a time, and began to build new perspectives on physical fitness and aging that have made her an aggressive advocate for a new, healthier attitude toward aging and the physical capabilities of older people.

The International Council on Active Aging, a Vancouver-based advocate for the aging services industry, recently began a "Changing the Way We Age" campaign aimed at overturning what it feels are media and cultural stereotypes of how older people are often portrayed. Norman is a board member of the group.

[See Older Populations Soar as Age Trend Accelerates.]

"Let me give you an example of the insidious way that prevailing social attitudes play a role here, even among people who should know better," she says. "Say that a 35-year-old person has a stroke. The focus of attention, of all our adaptive strategies, is to get that person back to being a fully functioning member of society. Now, say that a 75-year-old person has a stroke. What are our attitudes then? Overwhelmingly, the approach is to help this person cope with their new set of disabilities. It's not to return them to their former lifestyle, even though they may be nearly as capable of such a recovery as that 35-year-old."

This different attitude, Van Norman says, is one of many examples of "ageism"—treating older people differently in a manner that is not in their best interests. "There is just a huge difference," she concludes, "between coping with a disability and prevailing over it."

Many attitudes toward aging and older people were formed generations ago, she says, laying a lot of the blame at the feet of the medical and research communities. "A lot of the fundamental geriatric research was done on people living in nursing homes," she says. "Well, many of these people already had serious physical problems, but they were not representative of older people in general. However, our attitudes toward older people have been shaped by how we related to that smaller set of people with disabilities."

[See 10 Places with the Oldest Population.]

"People will change their whole body language, their whole approach, when they think they're dealing with a frail person," Van Norman says. "And for many people, frailty is automatically associated with old age. I consult with several retirement communities, and sometimes I just sit down unannounced in a reception area and observe how some of the older residents are treated by younger people. They often take a very condescending attitude ... They probably feel they're being compassionate, but this behavior sends a clear message to the person that you see them as old, frail, and maybe a little pitiable."

Physically, Van Norman notes, research findings dating back 20 years have confirmed the ability of people to prevent and even reverse physical frailty with vigorous strength training. "Our bodies are very resilient, but people don't behave that way. Part of the reason is that they have low expectations about themselves, precisely because they see a reflection of themselves in the eyes of other people that looks like a frail and physical declining person," she says.

"It's like reality is being distorted by this filter of expectations that sets a really low bar for what older people can become and accomplish," she says. "This lens of expectation has a powerful effect on how we view older people. If you want to change that, you've got to change that filter."

Twitter: @PhilMoeller