Have you ever noticed, when children are asked their age they usually respond with a number and a half, but as we reach middle age we're not so willing to share our age and will even round down?
But then, as we near older, more impressive ages in our 90s or even become centenarians, we go back to declaring we are "98 and a half," proud to be reaching such a milestone age. It's comical the way we approach our age and our personal perception of the aging process fluctuates quite a bit during the lifespan.
It is no secret that we live in a society where youth is revered as more favorable. You can't turn on the radio, television or visit your news homepage without being bombarded with multiple advertisements, stories or images of miracle products promising to make every crease and fold, lump and bump vanish. Women, especially, receive a great deal of pressure from society to maintain a youthful and vibrant appearance. However, as men begin to exhibit signs of aging through grey hair and various facial wrinkles they are often viewed as more distinguished. It cannot be a surprise that because of the way we celebrate youthful appearances, we are quick to dismiss the aging process that we are all bound to face. In fact, at this very moment we are aging.
One's age is often a sensitive topic and is very much a part of the aging process and how we embrace it. In general, individuals have a hard time dealing with getting older -- and understandably so. Our roles personally and professionally shift, children begin their own lives and families, responsibilities change and so do our bodies. All of these life changes can be very challenging for someone and no matter when it happens it seems to sneak up on us.
One of the most interesting aspects of the aging process is perception. Here, perception relates to how a person perceives themselves and what age they feel like. Here is a challenge, call or visit with a family member who is older than you and ask them what age they feel like they are. Very few people will respond that they feel like their actual chronological age.
For example, a senior who is 88-years-old may be speaking to his/her case manager and in order to get them more socially active to improve his/her health the case manager may suggest they get involved with the local senior center or a senior outreach program. However, the senior responds with, "No, that's for old people." This type of a response indicates the 88-year-old does not perceive himself/herself as a senior citizen and as someone who is entitled to take advantage of a service designed for older adults though being a seasoned octogenarian it would be expected that he/she accepts the services.
Because of personal perception we must be sensitive to people and their aging process whether this be personally -- with our family and friends, ourselves even -- or professionally, when working with aging clients. For example, AARP is marketed as a membership organization for adults 50 and older. As we know, 50 does not look like what it used to. To engage 50 year olds as older adults is no longer appropriate for our quickly changing society.
Because there seems to be an increased sensitivity to the aging process, people tend to struggle when it comes time to care for an aging family member or loved one. This is certainly a very challenging role on its own, but with the added weight of internalizing the process it becomes daunting. Becoming a familial caregiver can remind a person of their own aging process and mortality. No one wants to be reminded that they are getting older and life is changing. Change in general is a hard thing for many people, and when it is in the form of aging it is easy to become anxious. Change is not always easy, but it is a common element of life, and while we are not always able to embrace it with open arms, we can work on accepting that various aspects such as aging will change at some point and work on it from there.
The aging process is an odd element of life. It is not cookie cutter and will not look the same for each person. It can be challenging but it doesn't always have to be. Many of history's greatest inventors, artists and musicians have produced masterpieces well into their golden years.
More commonly, many use their retirement years as a time to engage in volunteer activities to give back, travel, enjoy family and loved ones and engage in activities that they find personally fulfilling.
At the end of the day there are two inevitabilities in life that just simply cannot be avoided: Paying your taxes and aging.
Rebecca Lippel is the manager of Family Centers' Friendly Connections senior outreach program. With offices in Greenwich, Stamford, Darien and New Canaan, Family Centers is a United Way, Darien Community Fund and Community Foundation of New Canaan partner agency that offers counseling and support programs for children, adults and families. Family Centers is also affiliated with the Community Fund of Darien. For information, call 203-869-4848 or visit www.familycenters.org.