You can’t spend four days with the people at the forefront of the “positive aging” movement and not feel at least a little optimistic about what lies ahead.
The Aging in America conference, held each March and produced by the venerable American Society on Aging, is anything but a fogey-fest.
Dynamic researchers, service providers and activists discuss the trends, products, services, studies, policies and every aspect of aging, emphasizing positive advances while keeping it real.
While there are certainly dire warnings (we’re not saving enough, we need to get way more serious about staying healthy), there is also a mushrooming panoply of initiatives, from global collaborations to rural-community endeavors to reverse negative trends and make life more enjoyable and comfortable for people as they get on in years.
Aging is not just a phase that baby boomers will go through, and then it’s back to a youth-oriented culture. (Cliché time: No one gets out of here alive.) And, as we are reminded, after we cross into the aging portal, we’ll be followed seamlessly by the Gen Xers, Yers and Millennials. (I know: but just try to tell them that.)
Yet because the boomers are that “demographic bulge” — and because we have always changed the game at every phase of life — now, as we’re on the threshold of this thing called aging, it’s going to look a whole lot different than our grandparents’ aging.
Call me a Pollyanna, but here's my big takeaway: It’s already a whole different game.
(MORE: Think Positive, Be Happier: The Invaluable Lessons of 'Pollyanna')
More Than a Numbers Game
It’s not exactly stop-the-presses news that Americans are living longer (almost 80 years, compared with expected 30- to 40-year life spans before the 20th century), thanks to quantum advances in medicine and a dramatic turnaround in infant mortality.
Every entity from government agencies to advocacy groups to individual health care providers is aware of the projections: that by 2050, the number of Americans over 65 will be 88.5 million, a solid 25 percent of the entire population.
Yet, as the pundits emphasize, those “bonus years” aren’t just being tacked on at the end — they’re being shuffled throughout our midlife to expand our careers as well as our opportunities to pursue passions, like family, travel, lifelong learning, cultural and social engagement and playtime.
I listened to a wonderful presentation by two women who work for Seattle’s Senior Services. They told the story of how they engaged residents in a project to evolve the city in ways they wanted. With a large outreach program, they asked people a simple question, “What would your community have to look like to support you as you age?”
Long story short: Hundreds of people got very involved with workshops and summits to collectively answer that question then manifest some of the responses. In the process, among other things, they made a local park more user-friendly and launched fun activities, like an ongoing World Dance Party series, where people bring food and, grooving to a DJ, teach one another the dances of their culture.
Here’s the part that really killed me: At the end of their presentation, the women asked the people in the audience if their communities had done anything similar. Hands shot up around the room, and people told story after story about working together in grassroots ways to manifest the kind of place they wanted to live.
(MORE: 9 Best Things About Being Over 50)
People Are Doing It for Themselves
I spoke with urban planners and architects at the conference and got excited by their excitement. A number of them were quite young — but teeming with energy and big ideas. Themes included retrofitting small cities, making all cities more accessible and planning now for the explosion of older people. I’ve invited a number of them to contribute to Next Avenue, and I’m looking forward to their input from the frontlines.
Other areas that inspired me were people organizing peer groups to share their feelings about aging and help one another shift to our “new normals.” It’s not easy for people who spent their entire adult lives in rewarding jobs (often at the top of their field), traveling around the world, playing and competing in sports, or just exercising vigorously and managing quite well living on their own to find themselves no longer able to do everything to the max.
I met so many people innovating in all areas of life, and I’m excited to share their stories with you in the coming months. I learned about time banking and other local helper organizations like Nextdoor.com. Designers and manufacturers are taking the concept of universal design into all areas of life, from homes to technology to cities to the products we use every day. Pets are a huge part of our lives, of course, and there are many wonderful ways to adopt, foster, rent and interact with them. I was especially impressed with Habri, an organization run by Purdue University dedicated to researching the human animal bond.
Sure, there are plenty of challenges that lie ahead. We don’t need to be reminded about the physical, financial and especially emotional difficulties of caring for our elderly parents. Many of our children are having problems gaining traction in their careers, and that’s painful to watch (and can be expensive to support). We ourselves are experiencing changes in our health and vitality, and many of us aren’t optimistic about the future: our own or the planet’s.
Words to Live By
I left the conference reminded of Tim Hansel, a mountain climber and true adventurer who had an extreme fall while climbing, and it was only by some grace of God that he lived. He broke many of his bones, and his remaining years were spent in excruciating pain. But his will to live triumphed, and he continued to climb, run and play sports until he finally gave up his fight in 2009.
Though his name and story aren’t well-known, something he said is — at least part of what he said. I find it one of the most simple yet inspirational 16 words ever strung together, and a great mantra to live by, especially when the going gets rough (and it will). May it inspire you in your own journey through positive aging.
“Pain is inevitable, but misery is optional. We cannot avoid pain, but we can avoid joy.”