All over the world, but particularly in the United States, people exert great effort in avoiding old age. Americans spend $262 million per year on antiaging serums for the skin and $310 million per year on synthetic hairpieces. They spend $2.3 billion per year on anti-aging wrinkle creams. They spend $2.6 billion per year on drugs for erectile dysfunction. They spend $37 billion a year on nutritional supplements to fight aging and to support good health.
Probably one of the reasons Americans spend their resources to avoid getting older is that the upside to aging isn't readily apparent. Among Americans who have lived to the age of 60, life expectancy is about 85. Those last few years, after 75 or so, are likely to be unpleasant for most. People simply outlive their friends and loved ones. They reach a point they can no longer keep up their sports, their hobbies, their social lives, or even their homes. They find their way into incredibly expensive rest homes, spending their life savings or dependent on the state for a low standard of living. It doesn't have to be this way.
The Eden Alternative
In 1991 Dr. Bill Thomas was burning out as an emergency room doctor. He got a call asking him to be a medical director for a nursing home in upstate New York. Thomas had grown in the tiny town of Nichols, New York, where old people continued to be surrounded by life-long friends and family members all of their lives. Families took care of old people, but old people also took care of families. The doctor's bucolic background left him unprepared for what he would find in the nursing center.
Thomas found the rest home to a repository for forgotten people losing interest in the world. Acting on instinct, he ordered the staff to acquire two dogs, four cats, several hens, a pair of rabbits, and 100 parakeets, all in violation of state law. He also had the home buy house plants. They started a vegetable garden. They opened a day care center for staff members' children.
The sudden infusion of life and activity and being needed had a profound effect on the residents. Many started dressing themselves and feeding themselves again. The need for prescription drugs fell to half that of a normal nursing home. He called his initiative the Eden Alternative, and it was duplicated in all 50 states of the USA, and in Australia, Canada, Europe, and Japan.
Green Houses for the Elderly Before the Green Movement
Dr. Thomas didn't stop there. He built on his success by building a nursing center of "Green Houses," smaller residences with private bedrooms and bathrooms. Moving nursing home residents from large buildings with long corridors into small private residences had an unexpected effect. Residents no longer needed wheelchairs, because they no longer had as far to go to get to the places they needed to be during the day. After six weeks, he had to call for trucks to pick up and carry off wheelchairs that were no longer needed. The kinds of support needed for the residents were far more pleasing to staff, too. There was greater need for gerontology nurses than for orderlies.
What Thomas could not do, even with two great ideas, was to change attitudes about the elderly. Not doing anything differently, he found, trumped even good ideas for change. So he set about finding ways to change attitudes.
No Magic Path Of Flowers And Unicorns To Old Age
Thomas recognized that getting old isn't easy. There is a constant barrage of new infirmities and insults (even if they are a matter of internal dialog) and embarrassments. The usual way of dealing with this is to accept the "inevitable" and batter down for everything getting worse. Start using a cane, a walker, and then a wheelchair. Don't try to work through your emotions. Let the nurse give you Haldol or Xanax. Don't try new foods. Get your old favorites sent through a grinder. Don't make new friends. Start talking to yourself.
Younger people are better at quick responses and literal understanding. Older people are better at clever responses and imaginative understanding. Younger people are admired for their physical appearance and prowess. Older people are admired for their selfless service to community. “It’s a loveliness the maiden cannot know," Thomas is quoted as saying in the Washington Post. "Honor this beauty, and it will honor you.”
Thomas's message isn't that if you have to go the old folks home, you'll be happier if at least you can stare at a fern all day. It isn't that it's nice to pet puppies and kitties or to listen to children playing, especially when they aren't your children and you can retreat to your room any time you want.
At my last birthday I became a senior citizen myself. There was a long time in my own life I couldn't imagine being this old. Now that I am "old," I actually like it. Here's why:
- I have been through enough crises I have confidence in my ability to pull through anything, even though the older I get, the more crises I have to navigate to continue to live independently.
- I care what people think, but I don't get upset when people disagree with me or don't appreciate me. What counts is that I have done the things I had to do to be comfortable in my own skin.
- I realize how limited my imagination was back when my mind was quicker. I may occasionally forget someone's name or stumble over a term when I'm quoting something in a foreign language or forget where I put my keys, but I also have vastly greater problem solving abilities because I have had to solve a vast number of problems.
- I have slowed down enough to be consistently the kind of human being I want to be. A slower pace helps me be kinder, more thoughtful, and more moral.
- I can still learn new things. After 22 surgeries and 45 hospitalizations in three years, I somehow managed to reach the point I'm taking up Qi Gong, starting work out with kettlebells instead of weight machines, I'm going back to my lifelong hobby of hiking in mountains (just smaller mountains with more interesting terrain), I'm exercising my authority in places where I've earned it, and I'm exercising the social skills to grow plants in a community garden instead of half an acre of my own.
You're as young as you feel, and I don't feel a day over 57 (which is a little ways back for me). Just because you're getting older, you don't have to stop finding your unique path through life. More than any drug or health device, it's staying engaged with life that helps you enjoy maturity.