Tips for turning gray into golden

Whenever I passionately enter into a discussion on the aging process, here’s what happens. People roll their eyes a little and look down or away.

Sometimes they just sigh and smile at me indulgently. Heavy, deep sighs usually. Perhaps you’re doing that right now. Maybe you’re even considering moving on to another section of this newspaper. Read it later. Consider what I am saying — this is about you.

Actually, it’s about all of us, because getting older is the only thing we all hold in common. So, why not be selfish and decide to do it well. Make that decision; perhaps it’s that simple.

I have a theory that “aging well” means you recognize and embrace the wear and tear that is inevitable with aging, but you treat yourself like you would a favorite antique automobile and do regular maintenance with an occasional wash and polish. Everyone I encounter who has done that — educated themselves about aging successfully, stayed active, eaten wisely and laughed long and hard when they recognize their own youth-obsessed vanity — well, they seem younger, more “in charge.”

And research suggests they are measurably happier. They also have a lower risk of heart disease or death from any cause (Archives of General Psychiatry, November 2004).

How different would the later-in-life experiences be if we lived in a culture that smiled upon aging instead of resisting or denying it? How different would life be if the aging journey was less focused on medical attention and procedures, expensive “cures,” excessive use of technology and, ultimately, the marginalization of gray-haired elders?

I am not the only one contemplating this. I lifted today’s ideas from an article titled “The High Cost of Denying Aging” by Dr. Christine Kovach, a professor at the University of Wisconsin. She’s worked in nursing home environments most of her life and seen people at their oldest and sickest.

She says, “Medical advances and preventive care practices have spawned the unrealistic expectation there is a magic bullet for everything that ails us. We deny our own mortality and are psychologically unprepared for illness and the threats to survival that come with old age.”

Consider how this looks in real life: “I don’t have to watch my diet anymore. I can eat all the bacon and eggs I want because I have a medication that takes care of my cholesterol.” Or maybe it looks like this: “My mom was diabetic, my uncle too — it’s inevitable, I guess. Pass the cookies over here again, will you?”

I made a pact with myself a few years ago. I promised I would not let aging “just happen” to me. I wanted to stay informed and be an active participant in the process of getting older. “Ever learning” was my declared motto. And so I try. I look for information and insight everywhere. There’s an unexpectedly useful publication called “When Gray is Golden.” I love that title. It’s a marketing treatise and its focus is on selling products and services to older adults, but it has the right attitude.

Let’s choose to be golden. No need to buy into anything except a little more optimistic reality.

— Sharon Johnson is a Oregon State University associate professor emeritus and the Executive Director of Age-Friendly Innovators Inc. Reach her at Sharon@agefriendlyinnovators.org.

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