At the 2019 October Democratic Debate, three candidates over seventy were asked about their age as it related to the demands of the presidency. Stereotypical beliefs about aging would suggest that older people are less capable of handling the complexities of such a demanding role. Yet, each attempted to refute such stereotypical beliefs by arguing that they had the stamina and ability to handle the most important role in the world from day one. Nonetheless, all three of these candidates will likely face age-related challenges. At the same time, each one is able to draw on a wealth of experience he or she has developed over a long period of time.
Stereotypes that Don’t Fit
Overall, we still live in a culture that separates age by those who are young and by those who are old. People who are no longer young risk being categorized as out-of-touch and less able. This general assumption is reinforced by the notion that when a person reaches a particular age, they can be considered ‘elderly.’ In our culture, the very term, ‘elderly,’ has been associated with individuals who are frail, feeble, and failing.
At what age are we considered elderly? That depends on where you live and who you ask. A 2013 NPR article reported that public agencies in Rhode Island start referring to people as elderly when they reach 60, and “in Hawaii, it arrives at 55.” Doctors we visit may describe us as elderly in their notes if we have reached 65.
During the 1900s only 4.1% of the U.S. population lived until they were 65 or older. During that period, an individual who made it to the ripe old age of 55 or 65 would more likely have been frail and failing. But things have changed in the last 120 years. Because of better education and nutrition, lifestyle, work changes, and other factors, we are living longer than ever. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2018 approximately 15% of Americans were 65 and older. In just a little over 10 years, the Census Bureau projects that 21% of Americans will be 65 and over.
Chronological and Biological Aging
Of course, each of us is unique and we all age differently. I’ve met some sixty-year-olds who look older than their years, their thinking isn’t as sharp as it once was, and they have struggled with a raft of chronic health problems; I would consider some of those individuals to be elderly. At the same time, I’ve known people in their seventies, eighties, and nineties who remained active, healthy, and engaged; these individuals were functionally younger than their chronological years.
All of us continue to age chronologically each moment. Though related to our chronological age, our biological age refers to how well we might function at a certain age. As one article on aging noted, our biological age can be influenced by genetics and lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise, sleeping habits, stress, and other factors.
Research does indicate that we can do much to support our overall functioning, and to some degree, how long we actually live. However, that does not mean we will stop aging or that we will function like someone years younger—at least until science moves us into an era where age is slowed or somewhat ‘reversed’ at a cellular level.
I’m one of those lucky people who had a lot of ancestors who lived a long time. I’m also a person who works at taking care of myself by exercising, eating healthy food, managing my stress, and getting a sufficient amount of sleep. Even with all the positives I have going for me, I am getting older, I am slowing down, and I cannot think as quickly as I once did. But at the same time, I have new strengths that come with age.
We Have a Lot to Offer
If we do take care of ourselves and embrace our new roles as older adults, we have a lot to offer as elders, leaders, mentors, employees, business owners, and happy life travelers. Our experience can give us insights that improve decision-making and problem-solving. We have a lot of knowledge and skills that we can apply to new situations. Our capacity for creativity may increase. We have refined familiar tasks and are often more efficient in certain areas than less experienced people. And, according to some research, older adults tend to have a higher degree of emotional intelligence.
Louise Aronson, Harvard-trained geriatrician and author of Elderhood, points out in an online interview that as people enter their sixties, their life satisfaction tends to increase. She also says that “in elderhood, people tend to be comfortable with who they are and more confident about their priorities.”
Rather than succumb to the pressure of trying to present ourselves as an older version of a young person, we have the opportunity to present ourselves as an enhanced or different version of our younger selves; after all, that is really who we are. As Dr. Aronson mentioned, we continue to grow and develop as we age. We possess a lifetime of experience. Let’s celebrate it and share it with a world that needs it.