10 Nov Is Ageing well the same as Living well?
Is Ageing well the same as Living well?
On my early morning stroll, I was fast on the heels of an 80-something year old couple who I often see strolling in the local area. I lagged behind them because of my desire to jot down some ideas for this morning’s blog, so I slowed my pace, but wanted to capture the simplicity of this glorious morning stroll with my ‘walking companions’ if only from a distance. They’ll never know what joy they bring when I see them on their early morning walk. They are a comforting sense of ‘the familiar’ together with those early morning sunrays entering my field of vision while I savour the luxury of being able to contemplate life, connection, and purpose as I pound the pavement sipping a latte.
This comforting encounter with some local active elders pacing the neighbourhood in the distance, as well as an online retreat with a group of older folks I attended yesterday to practice meditation, in a kind of sangha, has brought to mind the idea of what it really means to journey well through life and into our later years. It also sparked a thought about how our obsession with ‘ageing well’ can in fact be a barrier to living well. In other words, what contemporary society describes as having ‘aged well’ is not necessarily a recipe for living well.
Arriving home from my walk, I curiously searched up the term ‘aged well’ in google, and was shocked, yet paradoxically not so surprised to see that this search term had brought forth 1,220,000,000 results!
That is one billion two hundred twenty million results on the topic of those who have ‘aged well’! You can imagine; from cosmetics, to health, to looks and tips for ‘staying young’ sprung forth. From podcasts, tv shows to ageing celebrities ‘then & now’ and all types of click bait. There was no time to read 1 billion+ mentions of what the internet thinks it means to have ‘aged well’, however, scrolling through the first few pages, the contents were not the sort of things that promote feelings of comfort, psychological safety, or cognitive-affective liberation from the persistent stigma that is designed to shame us with messages about ‘ageing poorly’ versus ‘ageing well.’
What does the compliment ‘you have aged well’ even mean? Or a subtly more backhanded compliment ‘You look good for your age’. Is this really a compliment? Human characteristics such as age, race, and gender are arguably the first aspects we notice about the people we encounter in day-to-day life. This is likely due to adaptive and evolutionary processes that allow us to socially categorise one another. However, it would seem odd, if not absurd if in our observations, we substituted age with otheraspects of social identity, such as gender, sex or race. For example, if someone says, “Gee you look good for your gender, or your sex” or “You really look good for your ethnic background” it would seem quite strange, if not completely inappropriate! Yet, we give a wide range of observations and age-based judgements in our daily interactions, including in gossip at the water cooler, in milestone birthday greeting cards, all over the media, commentary about celebrities, and in assessments and assumptions in our workplaces.
The corollary of age-based judgements is that we often have this [internalised] rating scale on appearance and equating it to age, and the pressure to not ‘let ourselves go’. The message, albeit tacit in these observations of ‘so-and-so has aged well’ or ‘you haven’t changed; you’ve hardly aged’ is that you either have or haven’t committed the ‘sin of ageing’ or letting yourself go! First, there’s nothing wrong with self-care and wanting to maintain your health and wellness optimally at any age, and there’s no sin in ageing outside of what is normatively considered ‘ageing successfully’ either. We start to lose our way a little when we fixate on the expectations about age being the opposite of a youthful appearance, when ageing is really just living in whatever manner it unfolds for you. Its the conflation of age and appearance that ironically creates barriers to living well in an insidiously self-sabotaging way. It robs us of peace and heightens our sensitivity to stereotype threat, that is the psychological fear of being reduced to a stereotype about our age.
Our desire to maintain as youthful-an-appearance as possible sometimes comes at the expense of being able to experience life as it really is. We can become imbalanced in our pursuit of ‘wellness’ when we don’t own our truemotivations behind the pursuit of anti-ageing tricks and tips. This striving can easily tip into the futile fight with the ageing process. In this vain, I always found the term ‘successful ageing’ an interesting one, as though there is a way to win at ageing!
However, I recognise that many researchers who have used this term in the past have mostly been focused on optimal ageing and supporting intrinsic capacity in later years. I think that we are moving into an era of more nuanced language surrounding ageing as there are so many dimensions to think about, particularly in light of our increasing longevity which holds the promise of a much fuller, more wholeexperience of life that transforms the full spectrum of the human experience into lessons worth sharing. A most worthwhile lesson is that ageing is natural, not to be feared, and paradoxically, the more it is embraced the longer one actually lives!
Living well in midlife and beyond is often reported as a process of letting go. Letting go of ego projects, laying down the desire, or need for upholding our youthful appearance as the pinnacle of our social identity. Midlife and beyond is often seen as a stripping back of our more superficial wants and desires, which gives way to a great need to commune, share, mentor, bestow knowledge and learn about ourselves in a way that transforms some of our earlier life experiences into lessons worth sharing in support of others.
Living well is about dropping social comparisons, and in the context of ageing I would suggest particularly in relation to appearance. As Brene Brown discusses in her recent publication, Atlas of the Heart, there are two kinds of social comparison: downward social comparison and upward social comparison. Neither are that helpful when we peg ageing to appearance and embody age stereotypes within our age-identities. Instead, let’s adjust tendencies towards wanting to hold onto youth and instead trust that our sense of self will organically transform into living well in midlife and beyond if we embrace our ageing journey without fixating too much on a need to appear ‘younger’, whatever that looks like as it unfolds, and in turn facilitates the birth of the person we were always meant to be.
As the late singer and performer David Bowie has been quoted as saying, “Ageing is an extraordinary process whereby you become the person you always should have been.” I would take this one step further to say ageing allows for us to not only become the person we should have been, but to recognise our older selves as successfully living well when we can step out of the many sociocultural constraints that equate ‘ageing well’ mainly with appearance or youthful abilities that are anchored in ‘youth identities’. There is much to celebrate and learn from our own period of youth, and the new and young generations who are coming through. However, unlocking fuller experiences of midlife and beyond, perhaps requires a letting go of societal expectations of ‘ageing well’ that equates that to youth, and stepping into what it means to be older and living well.
To quote another wise one, Buddhist teacher, Jack Kornfield: “In the end, just three things matter: How well we have lived, how well we have loved and how well we have learned to let go.” It’s time to let go of outdated definitions of what ageing well means, and start living well.
Natasha Ginnivan is a Research Fellow Psychology at UNSW Ageing Futures Institute and MEA alum. You can read more of her stories on her blog at www.mobilisingwisdom.com