How do you look at aging?

The word "prism" was used in the media this week. It's not a word you hear very often, so I found myself reflecting on its meaning. It's usually thought of as a mathematical term involving "two polygonal faces lying in parallel planes" "¦ etc. But there's an easier-to-understand meaning: "A medium that distorts, slants or colors whatever is viewed through it."

Let's apply the idea of a prism to aging. If a child looks at gray hair, wire-rimmed glasses and stooped posture through his prism, he sees "grandma." And the child, in all likelihood, smiles joyously. If a random teenager looks at that same aging figure, the teen's smile may be one of weary indulgence or even dismissal. Not always, but sometimes.

A 30-something beautician sees the gray hair and may want to 'blondify' it. A 40-something health care provider sees the stooped posture and may want to medicate it. We all look at aging — our own and that of others — with a lens that can distort or color how we feel about getting older, and perhaps even how we see life in general.

Embedded in my mind is a Chicago Tribune column written a few years ago, titled, "How Old Do You Feel Inside?" The point the writer (Alexis Elejalde-Ruiz) made was, "The key to staying healthy and living longer is deciding you're not old and decrepit."

She went on to write, "Research has shown that how people feel inside and their expectations of their capabilities can have a greater impact on health and happiness and even longevity than the date on their birth certificates."

The writer referenced the "counterclockwise study." It's pretty cool, actually. A Harvard University professor, Ellen J. Langer, has done a lot of outside-the-box research and written a book you might want to consider reading, "Counter Clockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility."

Her research brought men in their 70s and 80s to a week-long retreat where everything in the environment was outfitted to look like it did in 1959. One group of men was told to reminisce about that era over the course of the retreat, and the other group was told to act just like they did in 1959 all throughout the week. The result was that both groups demonstrated improvements in independent functioning, as well as "significant" improvements in hearing, memory, strength and intelligence — in just one week.

The individuals attending the retreat who were told to "behave" as if they were decades younger ended up making even more improvement and displayed "better dexterity, flexibility" and, reportedly, "even looked younger" to independent outside observers. Conclusion: We do not necessarily need to think of ourselves as "young," but instead, maybe we can "change the mindset" (the prism) used in thinking about what it means to be old.

Little children will lead the way perhaps. This week, as I ponder my aging self, I intend to do it through the prism of my smiling and joyous grandchild. I'll let you know how that works, but I'm highly optimistic about the outcome.

Sharon Johnson is a retired Oregon State University associate professor emeritus. Reach her at 541-261-2037 or

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