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purple ribbon for the world alzheimers day

The Weather of Alzheimer’s

When you are organizing an event, say, the Tacoma South Sound Alzheimer’s Walk, there can be an illusion that all moving parts are in your control, leaving you thinking: this event will be successful/fantastic/memorable (insert your favorite adjective here) so long as I check off all items on my to-do list.

We could view life as an event. The event. So the narrative goes, as long as I check-off all of the items: be respectful, do good, establish a career and so on, then I will be successful or (insert your favorite adjective here).

In today’s early Autumn event, there is at least one piece that remained uncheckable. The weather.

The weather, with all of its unknowns and impulsivity is similar to a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.

During a two-hour period of time, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., there was as much variation in the sky as there were people populating Todd Field, at the University of Puget Sound.

The sky was a solid sheet of arctic blue separated only by two main air streams. Within a matter of minutes, the sky shifted to an admiral blue populated by picture-book clouds and rays of sunshine. The imperceptible breeze shifted to barely detectable rain droplets.

A mildly warm autumn afternoon became disguised by a frigid rain storm too gusty even for an umbrella. In between the dramatic changes were the smaller ones too, warm became cold when some cumulus clouds blocked the now feeble sun, rain became stinging stones.

Miniature purple cowbells chimed. Pieces of synthetic orange, yellow and purple flower petals swirled in the air and decorated sidewalks. Bubbles were attempting to be blown from wands. Umbrellas flipped inside out. The announcer suggested over the loud speaker: 1-milers to the left and 2-milers to the right. Do I go left or right? Make a decision.

In the early stages of diagnosis, one may be hesitant or resistant to know more about Alzheimer’s.

For a moment, wicked freezing wind and sharp sideways rains, laughter, then silence.

You may feel anger toward or shame about a diagnosis.

Drop. Drop. Drop. The rain seems to be subsiding.

When you process new information about your diagnosis it is important to do so at your own pace – one that feels comfortable for you.

Round the corner and the sun shone.

Knowing more about Alzheimer’s can reduce the stigma and increase one’s confidence.

The sun shined and the sky lit up blue – presenting shades ranging from sapphire to cobalt to indigo. And then there were beeping cars like flashes of thoughts. Skies shifted across the gray spectrum from cinder block to pewter to forged iron much like the emotional processing of how one can feel so alone.

Then there were straight away streets, friendly faces and familiar feelings in an oh so unfamiliar state of being.

Experiences with Alzheimer’s, unlike the weather, is a checkable item.

Underneath the unknowns there is comfort in knowing and deliberate calm wrapped around impulsivity.


Adrienne Ione is a dynamic, mindful, high-fiving, cognitive behavioral therapist, certified dementia specialist and senior personal trainer. Founder of Silver Linings Integrative Health, a company with an aim of promoting health, fitness and wellbeing opportunities for people to thrive across the lifespan.

mardi gras float

Mardi Gras Float Celebrates Old Age

More than 100 years ago, floats began parading along New Orleans’ streets – from the Krewe of Alla to the Krewe of Zulu – as a way to entice business men to establish roots in the city and bring wealth to an area affected by the Civil War. The annual celebration is a carnival full of festivities. Another aim is to bring awareness to social justice issues such as black lives, sexual liberation and female empowerment.

In mere hours, the Krewe de Vieillesse, with a theme of celebrating age pride, can be seen parading along a route from South Clairborne to St. Charles to Chartres – linking Broadmoor, Garden District and Marigny neighborhoods.

Just as the Krewe of Rex names an influential resident involved in multiple civic causes and philanthropic pursuits, so too does the Krewe de Vieillesse honor an older adult whose contributions add vigor and liveliness to the community.

Just imagine if the Krewe de Vieillesse were a real event. How rich would our nation be if were age-friendly? One that honors all members of the community. Where we don’t ask questions such as: “Is aging a disease, or merely a natural occurrence that produces disease-like symptoms?”

Oh goodness. Aging as a disease?

We learn early on in life that diseases and disease like-symptoms are to be feared. By 2050, it is suggested that 16 million Americans will be diagnosed with dementia, a neurodegenerative disease. Put differently, 60-70% of us will not be affected by dementia.

A pervasive, traditional and customary approach to old age raises questions within the context of a medical model. Old age is seen as something that needs to be cured. Fix it.

I wonder if in the United States’ nearly 4 million total square miles, there is space for alternative constructs of old age?

Similar to one view promoted by physicists James Jeans and Sir Arthur Eddington, thinking the universe to be best understood as a great idea, we can think of old age as a great idea.

The process of aging exists to be interacted with. Ideas of old age are incomplete. As we age, we get to inform the structure and meaning of old age. Our identity adds a uniqueness to what it means to be old.

Maybe there is even space within the idea of old age for self-respect to coexist.

In 1961, Joan Didion wrote about self-respect in Vogue. She suggests, “self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others—who are, after all, deceived easily enough.” Despite living in a nation that barely hears the edges of words spoken by some old people, I hope we can continue formulating other ideas of what it means to be old – for ourselves and others.

Our orientation to the world, one that directly informs our own and others’ identity, could shift away from a diseased medical model and toward a mindfulness-based construct of old age.

If we adopt a mindful approach to aging – one that conceives of the possibility of new categories, a constant recreating or reorganizing of information that defines and interprets our understanding of our worlds, our own and others – perhaps our fears will decrease, and love will increase.

We could be living in harmony with old age. As Thibodaux writer June Shaw said in Nora 102 ½: A Lesson on Aging Well, “her vision decreased, [and] her joie de vivre remained.”

Placing old age within a different frame – one of revelry, rite, and ritual –  we might then view 79 to 80 as a rite of passage. There could be specific rituals reserved for people ages 82-84. And there could be grand revelry at 91. With all this pomp and circumstance to tantalize us in our youth, we might even stop living in fear of being old. We might also stop being afraid of people who are old.

Just as flambeaux carriers shined light on the complex creations of original floats during carnival, let us now illuminate older adults in a celebration of inclusion and appreciation. Thank you for adding to our world.

Let your flame burn bright.


Adrienne Ione is a dynamic, mindful, high-fiving, cognitive behavioral therapist, certified dementia specialist and senior personal trainer. Founder of Silver Linings Integrative Health, a company with an aim of promoting health, fitness and wellbeing opportunities for people to thrive across the lifespan.

aging

The Exorbitant Costs of Single-Minded Identity Construct of Old Age

 

When you read the words “young-person” in a sentence, what is the image that comes to mind? What about when you hear the words “old-person?” Do you readily form an opinion or do your initial thoughts come in the form of questions: “I don’t know. I need more information? What do you think?” If a clear image comes to mind, then one line informing these socially constructed ideas of aging can be traced to our education system, one that rewards outcome over process.

With such a strict adherence to outcome, we mindlessly develop a world view that we rarely, if ever, question. Freud suggests that although our initial interpretations of the world may be later refuted, we tend to cling steadfastly to these original views.[1] Possibly damaging views are what serve as a lens through which all future information passes.

In childhood we develop ideas of old age. At the time, the way in which we construct this concept may be rather irrelevant information. Old age doesn’t pertain to youth. Or does it?

Our most prominent images of old age can be described by what psychologists refer to as “premature cognitive commitment.” These original concepts of old age become the foundation on which we identify as we age. We live to fulfill these ideas and uphold these images. As Ellen J. Langer suggests, “premature cognitive commitments are like photographs in which meaning rather than motion is frozen.”[2] In other words, in our youth, we hear words such as stodgy, grumpy and crabby to describe old people. Later, as adults, as old people ourselves (if we are so fortunate) we do not question this image. We may act in these ways even if we don’t genuinely feel this way because, well, we’re old and this is what old people do. Unquestioned. This stunted potential is yet another cost of the mindlessness of aging.

Similar to the views promoted by physicists James Jeans and Sir Arthur Eddington who thought the universe to be best understood as a great idea, we can think of old age in the same light. Aging exists to be interacted with. The idea of old age is incomplete. As you age, you get to inform the structure and meaning of old age. Your identity adds a uniqueness to what it means to be old.

Our orientation to the world directly informs our identity. In the U.S., success is so strictly tied to outcome. A self-image that is based on outcome fails to recognize the value of process. As we age, we could greatly benefit from regarding process as perhaps even more valuable than outcome. Furthermore, if we adopt a mindful approach to aging, then we can conceive of the possibility of new categories, a constant recreating or reorganizing of information that defines and interprets our understanding of our world and of old age.

St. Augustine said, “The present, therefore, has several dimensions. The present of this past, the present of things present, and the present of things future.” If we take into consider the process of living, one that is as varied as there are dialects in this world, and use this to inform a construct of old age, then we can see where different processes of old age can occur.  It is possible for many images of old age to exist.

By adopting a coherent mindful approach to aging, we may not only reduce the costs of mindlessness we may also extend the quality and years of our life. I don’t know. I need more information. What do you think?


Adrienne Ione is a dynamic, mindful, high-fiving, cognitive behavioral therapist, certified dementia specialist and senior personal trainer. Founder of Silver Linings Integrative Health, a company with an aim of promoting health, fitness and wellbeing opportunities for people to thrive across the lifespan.

[1] Sigmund Freud, “Analysis terminable and Interminable.”

[2] Ellen J. Langer, Mindfulness.

Seniors-at-Beach

Aging & Death

As of late, more and more headlines suggest a clear and concise connection between “the elderly” and death. Aging and death are not synonyms. Yes, both happen to us, although not always in a logical and linear order. Just yesterday morning, I sat in the back tea room of our home, opened the New York Times newspaper as I do most mornings and discovered a special edition on “the elderly in Japan.” Here is an 8-page layout on living conditions in public housing communities that sprawl across Japan. Once vital centers of communities, lively in the 1960s, people describe them now as hosting magots, mounds of piling garbage, and incense burning in the smell of urine and bodies decomposing. Grand. Just what I want to become. Elderly. Really? Well, if this is how elderhood is described, why would anyone opt for this. One man interviewed in the story shared his sentiments: “How we die is a mirror of how we live.” This is not an isolated thought, rather it runs deep in our individualistic society. This ideology is deeply entrenched in our understandings of aging.

Time and time again, the two processes are intertwined, so much so that the latter informs the former. Our concepts of death define how we internalize the aging process and how we view others aging. Indeed, I do believe the two deserve attention, only independent of one another. Our culture gravely misses the mark on such separation. We promote a denial of death. A medicalization of death. We view death as a failure. Death as a loss. Death is the enemy. However, I come from the perspective that this is not the only lens through which to view death. In the U.S., death is dark. Jeepers. We wear black to funerals. Come on.

Another perspective constructs death as the beginning, rather than the end. Another view is that death is a continuation. To be continued as life. “Death is not extinguishing the light, it is putting out the lamp because dawn has come,” suggests Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore. What would it take for the United States to fully embrace such a paradigm shift? For example, when a person is born at one of the local hospitals, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” is played over the intercom and can be heard throughout the entire hospital. Want to take a guess and what song is played when someone dies? That’s right. Nothing. No song is played. Silence. What if instead of nothing, a part of the ballad “You Light Up My Life” was played. Or ABBA’s “Hasta Mañana,” Judy Garland singing “Over the Rainbow” or perhaps Eddie Money’s “Two Tickets to Paradise.” Please, anything other than nothing.

If we did acknowledge death, how might this alter our perceptions of life? Yes, feelings about death are wrapped up in a cloak of fear and are rampant in our culture. “Even the wise fear death. Life clings to life,” remarked Buddha. Yes, I get that many people are afraid of a process of which we know so little about. There are far too many aspect about life we know so little about and so why live a life in the hinterlands. It is a guarantee that we will all get to the hinterland. The how and when is another matter. How do you benefit now from spending energy on worrying about the how and when aspects? Why is it that we cling to damaging ideological constraints of aging as death? How does this serve us if in shaping our ideas about aging, we then intertwine ideas about mortality?

For some, a discussion of death, even bordering on obsession with death, perhaps serves to protect the living. It is yet another way to separate us from them. As is commonly understood in the line of hospice care: They are dying. I am not. Early in my career I recall the first time a nurse remarked to me, “Well, you know she’s dying.” To which I responded, “Aren’t we all from the moment we are born?” She quickly cut her eyes toward me and huffed, “You know what I mean.” I smiled suggesting agreement, although I didn’t know precisely what she meant. And I still don’t. This was almost twenty years ago, when I was first starting out in the field of counseling and took a lot in, rather than ask any questions. And now, I inquire on people’s meaning of this any time such a remark is made. Sometimes, I’ll throw in the question, “If she’s in the process of dying, isn’t she also in the process of living?”

And so, I invite you next time you are in a situation where “someone is dying” share with others an appreciation for their life. Compliment the person who is living or share with them how they impact you – maybe lessons you’ve learned or directions in life you have taken as a direct influence of the person. Be present. Enjoy every moment of life. Death will arrive. And then, you can be present with death.


Adrienne Ione is a cognitive behavioral therapist and personal trainer who integrates these fields in support of people thriving across the lifespan. As a pro-aging advocate, she specializes in the self-compassion of dementia.

Website: yes2aging.com
Guided Meditations: insighttimer.com/adrienneIone
Facebook: silverliningsintegrativehealth

beach-2090091_640

Aging: What’s Positivity Got To Do With It?

When I hear people say, “Ya, positive aging is so important.”  I wonder, what exactly does positivity have to do with aging? Does having positive thoughts truly have an impact on the aging process?

A 76-year-old triathlete in Tempe, Arizona questioned aloud, while reading my business slogan, which is printed on the back of my jersey, as I ran past him, “Aging actively and thinking positively? Well, I am positively aging. Does that count for something?”

Then there’s the program for positive aging aimed at “improving later life mental-health and dementia care.”[1] So not only is it a mindset, we then also have instituationalized thought by offering programs that potentially train us to think a particular way about working with people affected by abnormal aging – from the DICE approach to the CARES approach.

In the 90s Martin Seligman, father of the “positive psychology” movement led the way for gerontology to create what Robert Hill and others call positive aging. Hill purports that “happiness does not just happen” rather our intentional behaviors and thoughts deeply impact the quality of our life.[2]

Perhaps as our lifespans have drastically increased over a relatively short period of time, the fervor with which we approach longevity is focused now more on quality rather than quantity.

According to U.S. Census Bureau, “in 2050, the population aged 65 and [greater] is projected to be 83.7 million.” Population growth at this rate is twice the speed of growth nearly 40 years ago.

Further, the average life expectancy for a female in the US is 78.8 years (slightly less for men and no current data on people who are transgender). One study suggests those with positive perceptions of their own aging lived an average of 7.5 years longer.

While having tea with a friend the other day, she shares a conversation at a recent doctor visit, where the doctor said, “How about you focus on your diet and we’ll follow up in 2 years.” My friend chuckled, and said, “Doctor, have you looked at my file?” He said, “Yes, I see your cholesterol and glyceride numbers.” My friend says, “OK. Did you see the numbers in my birthday space?” He responds, “Yes, you were born in 1917.”

My friend’s conclusion is: “I think I have the quantity part of life figured out. I’m going to focus now on the quality. And as that relates to food, if it tastes good, I’m going to eat it…this baklava from the Greek Festival sure is delicious. MMmmmmmm.”

Our thoughts are not separate from our body. There is mounting evidence for physical impacts of positive thought processes: strong cardiac health, decreased blood pressure and cholesterol readings.

Regardless of your current age, your thoughts can have a positive impact on your aging process. Research suggests if you look forward to aging, then you’ll enjoy the process more fully and joyfully as opposed to your dreading (or dreadful) aging counterparts.


Adrienne Ione is a cognitive behavioral therapist and personal trainer who integrates these fields in support of people thriving across the lifespan. As a pro-aging advocate, she specializes in the self-compassion of dementia.

Website: yes2aging.com
Guided Meditations: insighttimer.com/adrienneIone
Facebook: silverliningsintegrativehealth

References

[1] http://www.programforpositiveaging.org/

[2] Robert Hill Positive Aging

aging-hands

Objecting to Aging

In the above court case, “Persons who Object to Aging v. United States of Aging” plaintiffs filed this action challenging the Aging’s Executive Order on natural processes. The People seek a finding that certain sections of the Executive Order are contrary to their desires to live forever, be young and abstain from societal objectification. Constitution and laws of the United States of Aging, and enjoining Defendants from implementing or enforcing those sections of the natural aging process. The People further seek entry of a nationwide temporary restraining order against all acts of aging – biological, social, cultural, internal and political. The judge presiding over the matter: Honorable Time, concludes “Before us today is present not a case of wanton and reckless behavior. Rather, we witness an unveiling of the beauty of time in all of its folds and uncertainties.” A bench warrant has been issued on the grounds of the written accusation of United States of Aging being guilty for a natural act. The case has been relegated to collections until further notice.

Seated in the courtroom, among a group of people diverse in ages and thoughts, you quickly rise to your feet and let out a screech, “Objection your Honor.” Also seated in the courtroom is Stevie Nicks who exclaims, “I want to be age appropriate. I don’t want to be that girl you see walking away and she looks 25 and then she turns around and she looks 90.”[1]

In an era that is ripe with resisting, anti-everything, detesting and protesting, perhaps we can find comfort in shared experiences. It may behoove us to seek out similarities rather than differences. Discussions in the courtroom among proponents of objecting to aging, are quick to rely on arguments that are toothless tigers. They quip, “Hey, objecting beats the alternative. You know, succumbing to the decay.” In the United States of Aging, no one wants to be seen waving their white flag, a symbol of surrender, and more pointedly, weakness. However, what if we change the script? And shift the meaning of what it means to be old. What if the images and the bodies of aging were more closely aligned with models in advertisements for Benetton?[2] On an individual level, how would a social and cultural aging situate the way people internalize their aging process?

Perched on high, Honorable Time demands, “Please be seated.” Proponents of your objection turn the volume up on their snickering and clamor and the commotion and fracas crescendos until, “Order in the courtroom,” gruffly and vehemently reverberates among the walls from the booming voice of Honorable Time. Honorable Time delivers the verdict:

Today, we have been presented an incomplete case. It is unclear whether the plaintiff is requesting youth be on trial, the mind, the demeaning social inculcations of aging, the cultural misunderstandings of aging, or everyone else who does not object to aging. Therefore, it is in our dutiful interest, as a civilized United States of Aging, to further investigate the true and whole indecency of the quasi-crime presented before us today. At this point, it is paramount to understand the complexities and total gravity of the aging process and the social and cultural extensions of roots. I have not been convinced, beyond a reasonable doubt that aging is indeed a crime. I have heard witnesses from all sides, and yet it is still not clear to me how the plaintiffs would be satisfied in this situation.

Steven Tyler once wrote, “You have to lose to know how to win.”[3] In a similar vein, perhaps you need to be old to know how to be young. Or maybe old and young are purely made up categories that reinforce the social construction of certainty and uncertainty. As previously noted, perhaps it is time to write a different script on what it means to be old. The current working definitions of old, predate contemporary technologies and social categories. Prince concurs with his remarks on time. “Time is a mind construct.”[4] Times change. Minds change. Let us come together in our shared experiences. Rather than resist, give a hug. Hug yourself. Hug your old self. Hug your young self. Old and young are constructs. To the sun, we are all young.


Adrienne Ione is a cognitive behavioral therapist and personal trainer who integrates these fields in support of people thriving across the lifespan. As a pro-aging advocate, she specializes in the self-compassion of dementia.

Website: yes2aging.com
Guided Meditations: insighttimer.com/adrienneIone
Facebook: silverliningsintegrativehealth

References

[1] Stevie Nick did not actually appear in this hypothetical courtroom. Rather, her comment was from an interview that appeared in Rolling Stone.

[2] For an example of United Colors of Benetton advertisements, please visit Benetton.com

[3] Steven Tyler, American singer-songwriter for Aerosmith, wrote these lyrics for “Dream On.”

[4] Dorian Lynskey, “Prince: ‘I’m a musician. And I am music.’” The Guardian (June 23, 2011).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Still Life

I am not referring to the still life of the 17th century, a tradition that originated with Dutch painters and spread throughout Europe, where often there was a religious dimension.[1] I am also not referring to still in the sense that Don Henley encapsulates in his 1994 song, “Learn to Be Still.”  Nor am I insinuating an exploration of the archaic use of still that suggests sedentariness. Quite the opposite, although closely connected to the latter.

It’s 5 a.m. I am seated in a plush black leather chair situated in the corner of a soft-red lighted area of our home designed as a small bistro. The Baja-blue ceramic tea pot is on the stove and I am reading the New York Times. A headline captures my immediate attention: “Lifeguards for Life (Or as Long as Possible).”[2] In a 1,122 word story covering lifeguards who are greater than 60 years of age, the word “still” was used 5 times. That is, every 224th word of the story is “still.” My feelings of calm and delight suddenly mix with this internal emblazoned visceral change that underwent chemical synthesis and became a substance fueling the writing this article. I am perplexed at the use of the word still when describing people who are greater than 60 and the daily activities in which they may be involved.

Although well intentioned, selection of the word still is a curious linguistic choice.  This particular article did a beautiful representation of using two-polar opposite definitions of this word: one suggesting change and the other stagnation. On the one hand “still” suggests the possibility of change. A growing or morphing into a larger state than at present. For example, there was reference in the article to the late 1950s when “surfing was still in its infancy on the East Coast.” Now, in 2017, from Kennsington Cove off the coast of Nova Scotia to South Beach, Florida, one can surf up and down the East coast and find plenty of other surfers amidst the waves. Thus, in this case, still implies growth.

Then there’s another use of still when referring to an unchanging situation. The vernacular appeal of using still as a compliment is readily apparent. As in describing Mr. Labert, “One of the oldest active lifeguards – the kind who still dash into the surf to rescue swimmers.” However, his livelihood or successes, as he ages, are redefined in terms of stagnation. Continuing to do the same activities. Use of still in this sense implies accomplishment sans change. Other elderly lifeguards are “still ocean-certified” and “still kept watch.” Still can be likened to a lexiconic hologram: it appears one way from one direction, change your position (or age) and your perspective changes, or the image changes. Faced with a continuum of age from congratulations to offense to oppressive to objectification, our language lends itself to prescribing a limiting condition: “the tyranny of still.”[3]

Some of us will reach, or have reached, an age where marks of success shift from change to stagnation. We could call this the still life. I still live alone. I still drive. I still eat by myself. I still bathroom by myself. While these are not necessarily accomplishments or accolades to be proclaimed at achieving in one’s thirties or forties or fifties, there is that pivotal age when some of the smallest tasks become trophy winning moments. These triumphs are often treated as moments to be captured on camera and lived and relived, with bystanders singing praises such as, “Yay. You are still using a fork.” A comment actually made to a hundred-year-old woman, to which she responded, “Dignity doesn’t age.”

Embedded in these still comments, intended to be compliments, are platitudes served on silver platters. Sure, they appear nice and clean and friendly, yet under the shiny shellacked surface is a sharp jab. What are we saying when we say someone is still capable of completing activities of daily living? Perhaps a round of applause that they are seemingly independent. Why then is inter dependence not congratulated?  As a species is there truly anyone who is fully independent? We all rely on someone to some extent. Taking a look across the life span, we can see a continual push to be independent. If we say, “She’s 47 and she still lives alone,” then this begs questions of “What’s wrong with her?” or simply, “Why?” However, the script and responses are very different if we say, “She’s 97 and she still lives alone.” Often, the question then becomes, “Oh, what is she doing right?” With an implied, “If I take similar measures then I too will live to be that age and be active.”

Perhaps there are more connections between the still life of the 17th century and use of the word still as we age, than is apparent on the surface. Just as with some Dutch painters in the 1600s conveying religious messages, some research suggests we become more religious as we age. Perhaps the use of still is a way of separating the worlds, between the doers and not-doings. If we are still doing something, then we are not dead. If we are still doing, then we are relevant. A good many people desire to be relevant and alive. And one can be both, without adding still into the game. Still relevant and still alive. No. Relevant and alive.


Adrienne Ione is a cognitive behavioral therapist and personal trainer who integrates these fields in support of people thriving across the lifespan. As a pro-aging advocate, she specializes in the self-compassion of dementia.

Website: yes2aging.com
Guided Meditations: insighttimer.com/adrienneIone
Facebook: silverliningsintegrativehealth

References

[1] Vincent Pomarède and Erich Lessing (Nov. 2011) The Louvre: All the Paintings.

[2] Corey Kilgannon. (July 16, 2017). “Lifeguards for Life (Or as Long as Possible).” New York Times.

[3] Bill Thomas (2015). Second Wind: Navigating the Passage to a Slower, Deeper, and More Connected Life.

aging-hands

The Objectification of Our Aging Population

Some nonagenarians compete in triathlons while other ninety-year-olds face jail time. Some octogenarians study the game of Chess on the streets of New Orleans and others in their eighties travel across the country headed for baseball diamonds. Some septuagenarians are affected by dementia, live in memory care centers and receive aid with their daily activities; meanwhile, others in their seventies can be found in University lecture halls, sitting on faculty council, and contributing original research. This might read as part of scripted entertainment, however, it’s not. Rather, these images are even funnier when we see them floating in a sea among the tide of what we think of as “the elderly.” Why so funny?

I am not concerned with entering into the conversation about who is elderly, or these new hip ideas about saying 100 years young (this expression can be equally oppressive as the objectification of “the elderly”).

If we travel back to Britain in 1875, we can read in the Friendly Societies Act, where old age is defined as “any age after 50.” We can also turn to our nation’s leader in aging research and health promotion, The National Institutes of Health and Aging, where many topics are geared toward those of us ages 50 and greater. And so, it’s not a matter of age classification that concerns me, rather it is the objectification of a marginalized group that is of far greater importance. I’m also not particularly interested in developing a categorical understanding of the precise age of the person we are referring to when we say, “The elderly.” Rather, I’m fascinated by some peoples’ use of “the” when referring to a single person and then also ascribing a set of assumptions based on a singular experience or interaction. Yesterday, while standing in line at a local print shop, I heard one person remark to another, “You know how the elderly are…slow and crochety.”

Slow and crochety are common adjectives used to describe people who are elderly. In the Oxford English Dictionary you will find worse-for-wear, moth-eaten, and long in tooth as synonyms for elderly. What happened to using respectful, kind and caring words to define someone who is your elder? We needn’t live in extremes where we ascribe words such as venerable, esteemed, wise, grand or dignified. Although this might apply to some people who are our elders, using these words without license can be just as damaging as the objectification of “the elderly.”

Although common place in the body of literature on aging; the terms “the elderly”, “the old” and “the aged” are frequently used synonymously. What is it about the use of the word ‘the’ that rolls off our tongue so easily when referring to some groups, yet is incredibly offensive when used with other groups? ‘The’ creates a rigid and inflexible view of lives that are dynamic, complex, multidimensional and ordinary. ‘The’ presents a watered-down version of people based on caricatured qualities. ‘The’ creates an assumption of similarity among members. Also, the last of these, “the aged” suggests a past tense, a process having been previously completed. A life already lived. As far as I know, we are continually aging unless we are dead and in which case our subject of interest becomes “the dead”. ‘The’ is embedded in an otherness, a separation, no longer living. And since I’m living, then “the elderly” must be the other.

By saying “the elderly”, we are reducing defining features and valuable contributions of members of our community to singular stereotyped anecdotal evidence. ‘The’ suggests a devaluing of humanness or a perception of less than. Use of the word “the” is paramount to maintaining the age binary: young-old. Yet, this concept of binary is ill-informed. We have coupled two parts of the lifespan that are not guaranteed. Just because you are young, this does not suggest you will be old. It is only when you are old that you can say, “When I was young…”

Age categorization can create a space, a chasm, a divide between us and them. We are gripped by fear of them because we fear we too will become like them, when in fact, becoming elderly is a gift. Not everyone alive now, reading these words, will be so privileged to receive this gift of age. One of the greatest accomplishments in the past 150 years, according to University of California, Berkeley and Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Human Mortality Database, is an increase in life expectancy from birth. If more of us are becoming them, then why does a looming fear lurk in the air? Is it because there are more of us alive now than ever before who are adding to the collective fear? Plausible. Is it as Zygmunt Bauman articulates on fear, that aging is a process that happens and so we desperately grasp at the air for psychological consolations? Perhaps.

It’s purely a matter of shifting times that allows us, as a nation, to acknowledge the disrespect in using people as instruments for, in the case of “the elderly”, a continued glamorization of youth. It was not long ago when the proverb “children should be seen and not heard” was quite popular indeed. Dating back to the 15th century, children, and particularly young women, were understood to stay silent unless spoken to or asked to speak. First appearing in Mirk’s Festial , published by a clergyman about 1450, “A maid [young woman] should be seen, but not heard”.  In present day U.S. culture, we can see a similar treatment being delivered to our elders to an even greater extent. People who are elderly are not seen and not heard. We don’t want to see them for fear of becoming them, because we have learned to equate aging with death.

All living matter experiences aging from the moment of entering this earth. Just as surely as we age, we too experience death. The two are not correlated, birth and death, yes but age and death, no. Yet, in a culture that denies death, age masquerades as death. Age and death are two distinct processes that are both gifts bestowed upon anyone who is born. In order to untangle these webs of death and aging, fear and loss – we must extract ourselves from an obsession with youth.

By maintaining such strict adherence to youth standards, we further objectify people who age and who are unable to perform youthfully. Conversely, when we are ridiculed, or do the ridiculing, for “acting old”, there are many damaging effects this can create, one of which is internalized ageism.  The idea that the only interesting elderly people are either “dazzling or drooling” further reinforces this age binary and a fetishizing of youth. Tina Turner sings, “we don’t need another hero”, but what we need is a recognition of the diversity among people who are elderly. Old comes in many forms.

As well-intentioned measures are created to protect people who are elderly from abuse, flu and fraud, sometimes these very policies further objectify the people they are intending to help. Headlines read: “How to care for the elderly” Really? There’s a one-size-fits-all approach for caring? I didn’t realize all members of the elderly needed caring for. According to Education First, world leaders in International Education since 1965,“Use the [emphasis in original] with adjectives to refer to a whole group of people.” One of three examples given on their website is: “The elderly require special attention”. How would our world be if we offered special attention to everyone?

On a broad scale, we have witnessed a linguistic shift when referencing minority groups, by many people dropping the definite article ‘the’. Further, some find offense to hearing references like: ‘the blacks’, ‘the gays’, ‘the whites’, ‘the Muslims’, etc.  Let us continue with our inclusive practices and start referring to people who are elderly as the individuals they are. If you have the privilege to be compassionate, then please adjust your word order the next time you refer to a vital member of our community and emphasize the person rather than a group to which we assume they belong. If you are involved with policy development, consider suggesting a rewording using more inclusive language. Encourage your local transportation company to entertain ideas of changing stickers on mass transit to read “please reserve the seats for anyone who looks like they need a seat” instead of “for the elderly and the disabled.” And please, omit from your language the phrase: “Wow, you look good for your age.” We all age differently. And some, don’t age at all. They die.

And so, in this massive sea of wonder, awe and possibility, some stay ashore, some wade into the water clinging to their raft of thanatology, while others playfully splash about with exuberance and glee. Come splash with me and people who are elderly. Soon you will see there are differences and similarities between you and people who are elderly.


Adrienne Ione is a cognitive behavioral therapist and personal trainer who integrates these fields in support of people thriving across the lifespan. As a pro-aging advocate, she specializes in the self-compassion of dementia.

Website: yes2aging.com
Guided Meditations: insighttimer.com/adrienneIone
Facebook: silverliningsintegrativehealth

 

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Do You Give Your Age A High Five?

A woman walks into a room and asks, “By show of hands, who wants to get older?” Let’s pretend you are in the room. Will you be one of those who shoot up your hand excitedly at the prospect of getting older? Or, perhaps you will begrudgingly partially uncross one arm, rotate at the elbow and point your fingers toward the sky