Research is very clear about the importance of embracing a positive attitude towards aging. With a positive mental attitude, we are more likely to live longer, healthier lives. A recent report even suggested that we are less likely to experience memory loss when maintaining a positive attitude. However, how others perceive us as we age can affect how we see ourselves. At the same time, how we choose to see and present ourselves as we age also influences how others perceive us.
Social Perceptions about Aging
Over 100 years ago, sociologist Charles Cooley introduced his Looking Glass Self Theory. In essence, this theory suggests that “using social interaction as a type of ‘mirror,’ people use the judgments they receive from others to measure their own worth, values, and behavior.”
Recent work in the field of aging has demonstrated that when negative societal views of aging are internalized, they can profoundly affect older adults’ health and well-being. A 2015 study on walking speed and internalized ageism found that older people who accepted negative views on aging actually started walking more slowly. The study concluded, “Negative perceptions about aging are a potentially modifiable risk factor of some elements of physical decline in aging.”
Not surprisingly, women, in particular, have been more profoundly affected by internalized ageism than have men. Females learn early in life that society values them for their appearance. A 2017 Pew Research Center report revealed that most Americans valued women more for their appearance than other characteristics. This same standard did not hold for men. As women start losing their youthful looks, their perceived worth is often affected as well.
Challenging Negative Perceptions
The good news is that each of us can challenge negative perceptions about aging and make a choice to see our third chapter as a period of opportunity and growth. We often have greater freedom to express our curiosity, apply our wisdom, and revisit our deferred dreams.
We can start challenging negative views about aging by identifying subtle messages that are demeaning or stereotypical. By becoming aware of how prevalent these messages are, we can refuse to internalize them.
Self-Presentation as a Choice
We can also present ourselves as we wish to see ourselves and as we want others to see us. We can look the part of confident, wise, active, and engaged elders.
In her 2012 TED Talk, social psychologist Amy Cuddy discussed her research on how using powerful body poses physically creates a sense of power. When we expand our bodies and sit up straight, we feel more empowered and confident than when we slump or when we close our bodies off.
In my field of communication, impression management is something that has been frequently discussed and emphasized. By thinking about how we want to present ourselves- how we want to be perceived—we can mindfully choose to communicate the image we wish to offer. If we’re going to be perceived as confident and competent (as opposed to the stereotypical ‘frail and feeble’ perceptions of older people), we can project this using nonverbal communication. For example, walking with an upright posture and a healthy pace projects positivity and energy. Using eye contact and expanding the body when wanting better customer service can communicate that we are worth the time to be served.
How we choose to dress when in public, how we choose to use our ability to listen and to ask thoughtful questions, and how (and what) we choose to keep learning all matter.
Someone once told me, “Perception is reality.” I challenge all of us to think about how we perceive aging. If you realize that you have held onto some stereotypes about aging, then do something about it.
As for me, my aging reality is that I am wiser and more interesting now than at any point earlier in my life. That is my choice for the third chapter of my life. What about you?