I was raised in a family of older people. Up until my young-adult years, I knew and was around three great-grandparents: two on my maternal side and one on my paternal side. Though one of my great-grandmothers had a stroke, she lived to be one hundred. The others lived to be in their eighties. They each had something in common: they sat in a chair and watched daytime television.
And that’s part of what I learned aging was. For a long time, getting older meant at some point, you’re just tired, and you go kicking and screaming to whichever adult child drew the short straw, where you sit and watch The Price is Right, until one day, you no longer exist.
I also was lucky to have spent an excessive amount of time with three grandparents. Again, two on my maternal side and one on my paternal side. My paternal grandmother was a retired nurse, and eventually, a double amputee, who lived her final years at my father’s house. My grandfather died from a heart attack when he was in his mid-eighties. My grandmother will be ninety-six; she still drives and has a well-functioning mind. Her sister, however, will be one-hundred years old and is currently living with dementia in a nursing home.
I’m not sharing this to set up a doom-and-gloom post about aging, so I probably need to get to my point.
Recently, the Hidden Brain podcast released a two-part series about mindset. In it, the host, Shankar Vedantam and his guest, Dr. Alia Crum discuss how perceptions are always filtered through our mindsets—and these mindsets shape our lives in subtle but profound ways.
The examples Vedantam and Crum gave were focused on diet and exercise, but I began to think about this concept in terms of aging.
Aging for the silent generation I observed seemed to be a march toward a sedentary lifestyle, hence the resting and daytime television viewing. They seemed to trade their “real” clothes for housecoats, their activities for TV. I remember my great-grandmothers’ housecoats looking like a big sheet of flat wrinkles in the back from simply sitting for so long.
My experience with my great-grandparents and grandparents affirms these perceptions, which according to Vedantam and Crum, have shaped my mindset.
So, what is my mindset about aging? Well, let me tell you something very few people know about me. I have always declared that I will not be living past eighty. When folks would ask me why, my answer was simple: what am I going to be doing? Now that I think about it, this mindset came directly from my perceptions of the elderly in my family.
However, my maternal grandmother (the one who still drives) has always been an exception to this model. She led a very active lifestyle. When I would visit, I watched her exercise before exercising was a fad. She was the director of a senior citizen community center, where she took busloads of seniors on field trips around Michigan. Quite honestly, I never perceived my grandmother as “old,” until recently, where she seems to have shrunk to my height and wears a hearing aid. Even with these new developments, she still hops on a plane to visit anyone who will host her and holds clear, cogent conversations.
But I see my grandmother as an anomaly. In my own family, there were more examples of the housecoat-wearing, As the World Turns elderly person, than my car-driving, active Grannie. And with those examples, I’ve had to consciously shift my mindset about what it means to age. Here’s where I’ve had to change:
For a long time, I thought people reached a certain age and suddenly wore New Balance and stretchy polyester. Sometimes, my husband and I would scoff at older people who seemed to be trying to “look young.” Now, I see neither is true. I’ve had a pair of New Balance since I was forty, but it’s because they are the most comfortable shoes on earth to walk and workout in. Also, I now realize that when you see an older woman in her pink Converse and tutu, it’s not because she’s trying to look or be younger; it’s because that’s probably who she’s always been. Now, she’s just an older version of herself. The only thing that’s changed is her age, not her expression of identity. There are no rules for what you can and cannot wear as you get older. A lot of times, choices are due to body type, comfort, and identity.
My examples are from the silent generation, mainly because I haven’t had a close-up opportunity to watch my parents or people their age grow older. But from what I can tell, Boomers are doing all of the things in all of the ways within late adulthood. This generation has exemplified how to live through the aging process. However, I still suspect there are some misconceptions about what it means to actually live. For example, my father-in-law worked extra years because, for some reason, he thought he was going to retire and then immediately die. My aunt was supposed to retire two years ago, but someone taught her how to virtually do her job; now she’s “never retiring.” Instead of ending the job part of life and sitting on their butts, 41 million Boomers are still in the workforce. I don’t want to retire simply because I reach a certain age, but I also don’t want to be tied to a job just because I can still do the work. For me, living means experiencing as much as life has to offer. An ideal late adulthood lifestyle can be one that is in between resting and working.
I no longer have an eighty-year-old death wish. I know I can reach this milestone age and still live a fulfilling life, whatever that will mean for me at the time.
Perception and mindset are important. Now that I’ve explored what this means for aging, I’ll dig deeper into what it means for menopause phases next month.
Until then, let me know what you think. Have you had any mindsets about aging that you’ve had to re-frame?