The Secret to Successful Aging
I’m out shopping for a birthday card for one of my friends. She’s turning 60. Lots of choices of old negative image persons. I thought of picking up some these black balloons that herald the Grim Reaper. We’re all familiar with these kind of cards and gags. Most of us consider them pretty harmless. They’re just poking fun at a common human experience, growing old, right? As everyone knows, when you get to be a certain age, your mind and your body inevitably fail. Actually, if you believe that – and don’t be embarrassed because almost all of us do – you’re engaging in ageism. Ageism is no different from racism or sexism. It’s about people looking at you and prejudging your character, your abilities, maybe even your beliefs based on your appearance in a negative way.
We don’t often think that stereotypes of older age could be harmful, but they are. One study found that employers evaluating applicants with identical qualifications were more than 40 percent more likely to hire the younger worker than the older. How does a society maintain respect for experience and age? What can it do to give aging a more favorable meaning? These are crucial questions for us, where many people, rightly, fear aging because of the demotions they anticipate suffering. Despite attempts to valorize aging, our society is gripped by the implacable ideology of decline: in the age of Alzheimer’s, decline insists that longevity is no great boon. Older people are often considered a “burden”. Ageism may be the last acceptable bigotry. Sometimes flaunted, it is more often overlooked.
One ethical imperative of any cultural system is to value aging through the life course. Otherwise, as the inventor of the term ageism, Robert Butler, put it, in the painfully questioning title of his 1975 book, “why survive. . .As an age critic, I am the reluctant chronicler of the avoidable decline of a remarkably impressive nationwide ethical and ontological system—a result manipulated and justified in part by treating aging, in the profession, and in ordinary life, as a decline.”
However, if people become fatalistic about aging, if they internalize the negative stereotypes of aging being thrust upon us by the outside world, our performance will potentially decline faster than our biology. When it comes to aging, sometimes you’re only as old as you– subliminally–think! Negative stereotypes don’t just hurt people’s feelings, they can undermine people’s performance. Tell a student that his performance on the Graduate Record Exam is diagnostic of intellectual ability, and his test performance will decline compared to similar students informed that the test is non-diagnostic. People are influenced by negative stereotypes about race, intelligence, and sex. The same stereotype threat has been shown to undermine the performance of women taking math tests, or Caucasians engaging in athletic endeavors. In one study researchers did not promote explicit thinking about healthy aging but, instead, promoted such thinking implicitly and subliminally. They had participants look at a computer and tell them whether a light flashed above or below a bull’s eye at the center of screen. Unknown to the participants, the flashes were words–neutral words for people in the control condition, and words like “spry” for people in the positive aging group. Once a week for four or five weeks, participants came to the lab and went through this exercise. The researchers tracked attitudes and physical functioning over that period and another three weeks. They found significant improvement in attitudes towards aging among people receiving the subliminal words associated with healthy aging. What’s more, participants exposed to the subliminal words got physically stronger over time. In fact, these benefits persisted, even grew, in the three weeks after the intervention ceased.