We live in an age when many seniors are contradicting Shakespeare’s portrayal of age “as infancy, as helplessness and decadence” – as spiritual reformer Mary Baker Eddy once put it.
Instead they are exceeding past expectations and seem to be demonstrating to some degree “the everlasting grandeur and immortality of development, power, and prestige” which that same author wrote of more than a century ago – pre-empting today’s shift in thought concerning seniors’ capabilities.
In June there was 92-year-old Harriette Thompson, the oldest woman to have completed a major marathon. Now we hear about a group of people who simply refuse to retire and are still working in their 70s, 80s and 90s. Their occupations vary from cloakroom attendant to running a cancer research centre. Inspiringly, a Senior 2015 Australian of the Year finalist, 94 year-old Fred Hyde AM, has devoted his three post-retirement decades to rescuing and educating abandoned children in Bangladesh.
It’s almost as if they think they might live forever!
And why not! Laugh if you will, but this idea of the impact of what we are expecting bears a little more consideration. It was found in a study that “how we think about ageing” has a greater impact on our longevity than do gender, socioeconomic status, loneliness or how healthy we are.
Seniors Week in Queensland is the perfect occasion to celebrate the enormous contributions that our more seasoned citizens make in our communities.
Yet, it may be equally as good a time for younger generations to think more deeply about how their perceptions of ageing can have an impact on their health, too, because a recent study suggests many millennials might be prone to denigrating old people. Though the participants’ comments were sometimes tongue-in-cheek, the ageing research quoted earlier implies that too many jokes about granny and her walker might just shorten your own life span.
Maybe that’s why ageism has been described as prejudice against our feared future self!
Perhaps we should instead celebrate senior achievers and champion both their accomplishments and the qualities they express. This may lengthen our lives by planting the idea in us that their victories over age will be just as attainable for ourselves!
So why not envisage for our older selves a life of volunteering or enthusiastic service that may still be in the workplace, increased tolerance and humour, a wealth of experience and the wisdom to tackle any problem. Cherishing this hope at all ages will tend to lessen any inclination to belittle the elderly.
And understanding why we have grounds for such hope can help avert the wave of panic that might otherwise threaten to wash over us in our 40s or 50s in response to the threat of ageing, or as a result of the loss of a close loved one.
This is because we’re able to reassess our prospects as not simply living out an allotted lifespan that we have to resign ourselves to.
From a scientific perspective, the Journal of Physiology published a study this year concluding that: “Positive self-perceptions can prolong life expectancy. Expectations about the inevitability of physical decline with advancing years may be incorrect and that how we age is, to a large degree, up to us.”
And neurologist Dr Peter Whitehouse – author of the thought-provoking book, The Myth of Alzheimer’s – has a crucial angle to consider about that assumption. He describes ageing as our “unique ability to grow spiritually and mentally.”
The way I see it, such spiritual growth is key. I’ve found that a developing consciousness of our present spiritual nature – made in the “image and likeness of God”, as the Bible puts it – helps to extinguish fears about ageing that grow out of a more material sense of ourselves. Doing this has helped me maintain a youthful enthusiasm, stamina and optimism.
I like how the Bible corroborates the scientific approach of needing to change our expectations, but points to a deeper means for doing so than positive thinking. It says, “The Spirit alone gives eternal life. Human effort accomplishes nothing.” (John 6:63)
As we understand this, we might be less enticed by the latest body-focussed fads to reverse the ageing process, such as injecting young blood into older people or slowing the brain by following a special diet.
I prefer Eddy’s summation in Science and Health, “Life and goodness are immortal. Let us then shape our views of existence into loveliness, freshness, and continuity, rather than into age and blight.”