Old and Interesting: Edgy Elders

Natasha Ginnivan MEAx Australia

Old and Interesting: Edgy Elders

Until now older people still find themselves having to justify their needs, wants and desires for some of life’s most basic things. It is as though what we look like at a certain age gets pegged onto a sliding scale of what we ought to be able to do, wear or be engaged in. For example, older people are often made to justify where they want to live, if they want to continue working and whether they ought to still have sexual desires or not!

Ironically, and contrary to popular cultural beliefs, older people begin to lead some of the most interesting lives as they/we age. Yes, that’s right folks, age and ageing is a life-course matter that commences from the point of conception and ends, well, let’s just say at any time depending on how un/lucky we are. But we hope our life ends as late as possible!

It is somehow a surprise to us all, still, that life does come to an end eventually! So, we ought to truly live life every day, at all stages and not reserve our care, sense of agency and interests for only the earlier portion. Our attitudes about life and ageing ought not to be influenced, or determined by what society tells us about who we are when we are ‘old’. Unfortunately, our propensity, particularly in Western culture to dichotomize and mentally categorise things such as good/bad, male/female, young/old has framed our sense of self as ‘bad’ when ‘old’. In other words, the word ‘old’ has become associated with any number of negative terms representing decline and redundancy. This is why calling anyone ‘old’ is an insult, but it shouldn’t be. To be called young is perceived as a compliment and to be called old is not.

Understanding life as a series of stages and transitions is fine but it is not the whole picture. The era of conceptualising and categorising our lives and ourselves is over. We need to understand that our ageing journey is not just a series of stages and transitions but a process and an opportunity to have a deeper understanding of who we once were when younger; the events that shaped us, hurt us, helped or destroyed us and then transform these things into something new. This might include mentoring, volunteering, engaging in start-ups with a spirit of intergenerational collaborations (such as Wisdom at Work author & TEDx speaker, Chip Conley), picking up a new hobby, interest or an activity that can nudge us outside of our comfort zone or social circle.

As we age, many of us tend to grow more diverse and interesting. So why do the stereotypes of seniors as ‘old & boring’ persist? What is the secret to ageing well? Not just from a ‘cosmetic’ perspective, but rather what makes for interesting elders (or ‘olders’ as author Ashton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks, might prefer to call seniors) who lead fulfilling lives? We lack frequent stories, role models and examples in the media of older people (healthy, ill or living with disabilities). However, the ageing population is crying out for stories that are real, and not curated to present older people who are adventurous and interesting as ‘quirky’ ‘wacky’ ‘brave’ or ‘unusual’.

As a culture, we don’t spend enough time investigating and writing about the people who are living the last 30-50 years of their life in interesting ways because our gaze is still focussed on the [younger] population who are still finding themselves! This is not to diminish youth, because young lives are worth our gaze, but the message here is that we ought to not discount ourselves, our achievements or abilities as we age. Diversity, is about all aspects of society as author Ashton Applewhite attests and it is about time that we value age and ageing as our chance to transform our earlier experiences (good or bad) into something we can share with others. Edgy Elders aren’t just hip older people; they’re people willing to embrace their ageing journey, are not afraid to say when they were born, how old they are and what they bring to the table. It would be nice to live in a society that embraces elders who openly discuss their age and listens to what strengths they have to offer, rather than diminishing their abilities before they have even had the chance to show them.

Natasha Ginnivan is an ageing researcher and blog writer (mobilingwisdom.com) who is interested in cultural attitudes to ageing, and self-perceptions of ageing. She is a life-long learner, involved in both academic and non-academic groups related to the psychology of ageing, midlife transitions and beyond.