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September is Healthy Aging Month! Read “This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism” for a New Take on Living Agefully

Last month I received a backhanded compliment from an acquaintance who meant well, but whose words fell a little flat. “Happy Birthday -you’re holding it together quite well so you should be happy☺” I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about those sentiments. Honored by the kind wishes, yes, but not truly flattered by them. Shouldn’t I be holding it together?  Was he referring to my brain, looks or mental health? And really, what is the obsession with aging in America about?

It seems as if every compliment I receive now that I’ve passed 50 ends with, “for your age.” You look great for your age…That’s a good workout for your age… and the list goes on. And, if I am forgetful, it is automatically a senior moment. Yet my 20-something kids forget things as well, and they don’t attribute it to their ages, but to a normal part of life. People forget things sometimes. Yes, I am growing older, and hope to continue to do so for many more years. Yes, we go through natural changes as we age. However, not everybody ages the same way. There are many 90-year-olds who are beautiful, active and whose brains are working just fine. Meanwhile, those who experience life’s difficulties as they age should not be marginalized or thought of as useless to society.

Automatic assumptions about people’s capabilities and discriminating or stereotyping them because of age is ageism. Why not just enjoy who we are and appreciate each other’s gifts and talents without implying that aging is bad? If we can start to do this, perhaps we will also take some of the stigma away from embracing the help that people need from time to time to move naturally through the aging process. You get where I’m going here, right? It is okay to need help with your hearing, and, wearing a hearing aid will enhance your life, not make you seem incapable of participating in it.

In honor of healthy aging month, I read the book “This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism,” by Ashton Applewhite (251 pp. Networked Books). I highly recommend it for everyone: young, senior and in-between. We all would be better off if we stopped believing that if someone is older, they are less capable. Applewhite writes of getting older as a continuous, neutral path. “(E)veryone wakes up a day older,” she points out, and yet the most difficult ageism to release is the “prejudice against myself – my own future, older self-as inferior to my younger self.” Applewhite focuses on several false premises about aging in her book, and does it with humor, backed with loads of information from studies and her own research on the topic.

She dispels the myth of the senior (her term is “olders”) brain as being less powerful than the younger brain by presenting research that shows that cognitive declines do not even affect many seniors, and that, despite our vast fears about Alzheimer’s, “(m)ost forgetfulness is not Alzheimer’s, or dementia, or even necessarily a sign of cognitive impairment.” So, while Alzheimer’s is a serious public health problem which absolutely needs to be addressed, we are not as likely to suffer from it as we might think. Even mild cognitive impairment only affects 10 – 20 percent of those sixty-five and older. And, less than 4% of Americans over 65 live in nursing homes, a relatively small number. Applewhite points out that while not all nursing homes are bad, the numbers show that many of us won’t end up in a good or bad one.

As to cognitive powers of seniors, much is misunderstood. While some seniors might experience some explicit memory issues and slower processing time, they make up for it in their ability to process such volatile emotions as anger, envy and fear. Age equals wisdom in the context of better emotional maturity. As one physician geriatrician told Applewhite,

“I’m still interested in new ideas and events of the day, but connections to events gone by also spring to mind. There’s a unique, valuable perspective that this older mind brings to the work at hand.”

Further, while we have been conditioned to view the gaps where we might search for a name or word as mental slippage, Applewhite points to research that shows that the gaps might occur because senior brains are “sifting through a store of information accumulated over a lifetime, filtering, placing information in context…(o)lders may notice details or subtle cues or seemingly irrelevant information that could end up contributing to a better answer or solution than those from younger respondents, whose focus is tighter.” This doesn’t mean that seniors who want to remain in the workforce shouldn’t keep up their skills or learn new technology, but it does point to the strengths that ageism biases have made many of us discount.

If you haven’t heard of the U-shaped happiness curve, you might be a little surprised to read that people are most content in their 80’s and at the beginning of their lives. Applewhite discusses the happiness curve and points out the puzzling contradiction in our society that demands that we fight aging and dismiss seniors, even though most want to reach their age and happiness levels. She does not sugarcoat the fact that aging can be difficult for many, and that some of us will face troublesome, heartbreaking health issues or personal struggles. She merely points out that it is not helpful to stigmatize aging and the inevitable physical declines we all will face if lucky enough to age. She posits that, “physical decline is inevitable, poor health is not.” Our goals are misguided when we try to stay young – impossible- rather than stay healthy. In some of her strongest words,

“Living and aging cannot be separated. Aging is not a disease…Aging cannot be ‘’cured.” Aging means living.”

Yet, seniors often are reluctant to use wheelchairs, walkers, and admit to frailty because our society then often subjects them to ageist discrimination. For example, geriatric pain patients are often unable to receive the treatment that younger people receive. Doctors often spend more time with younger patients than they do older ones, and doctors and nurses often won’t treat balance and memory loss difficulties faced by seniors as they assume they are natural consequences of aging.

We can all learn to reject these biases and stop marginalizing our seniors, or assuming that younger people are more or less capable at tasks due to their age. Then, it becomes easier for people who need help to ask for it, and take it graciously without fear of ageism. Applewhite is hoping for a cultural shift, where, for example, we don’t tell seniors they look great for their age, or talk about seniors still working instead of just working, or say that we are “young at heart” instead of “full of energy.” A culture which believes that people of all ages can be friends and co-workers who learn and grow from each other. Quite a tall order, but very important for all sexes, races, and ages that make up the melting pot in which we live.

In addition to her insightful book, Applewhite hosts a website, writes a blog, monitors a second blog, “Yo Is This Ageist?”, and speaks publicly about ageism. All are worth a look.  

We hope everyone enjoys and celebrates Healthy Aging Month, and welcome your questions about hearing health.