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A Critical Direction for Aging

We must consider the concept of direction as we decide the next steps to take in order to disrupt aging.

direction for aging

You may already know that January is named after the Roman god Janus, who is often depicted as having two faces: a young one looking back in time and an old one looking into the future. I find this image especially appropriate for 2017 because, unlike my other posts on this blog that welcomed 2015 and 2016, this one is about considering the concept of direction as we decide the next steps to take in order to disrupt aging.

How should we move forward, given a new political climate that many people believe will take us backward by undercutting policies and undoing programs that have helped Americans of all ages survive physically and economically?

First and foremost, we need to determine a clear sense of direction. What does it really mean to grow older, and what are merely illusions and stereotypes? Is aging a process to avoid and fear or rather one to embrace and savor?  As a society, we should be moving toward understanding the reality of aging and away from perpetuating the prejudice and bigotry that have come to define it.

Secondly, once we have chosen our direction, we need to stick to it. Strong rudders and sails; sturdy tracks and trestles; trustworthy radar, sonar, and GPS –– these are the tried-and-true means by which travelers stay on course. Our aging-based navigational tools should be 1) respecting people of all ages and 2) wisely integrating into our communities the social assets inherent in each stage of growth.

Like older Janus, we’d be wise to cast our sights forward toward this critical direction of aging, only looking back at our past misconceptions and policies in order to avoid perpetuating them. And so, in a spirit of renewal, I offer these New Year’s Resolutions:

Let’s make science our directional compass. In this “post-truth” world of fake news, hyperbole, and fact-distortion, let’s run each assumption about aging through the mechanism of actual research done by competent professionals. That means taking the word of gerontologists, geriatricians, biologists, neuroscientists, and sociologists (to name a few) over those of marketers, anti-aging companies, corporate lobbyists, political hacks, and anyone else who is vested in making money or maintaining power by scaring us into thinking that being old means being ugly, useless, pathetic, and/or an economic liability.

Let’s hone our own critical-thinking skills and apply them. Instead of blindly assuming that the media is telling us what is true, we should become agents in that determination process. We need to pause whenever we hear a reported fact and ask ourselves about how that information was gleaned, who gleaned it, and what is being implied by that data. As for evaluating any statement of opinion, we should question the past reliability of that opinion’s source as well as whether the source has a hidden agenda. We can learn to make ourselves more sensitive to detecting propaganda and then more confident in rejecting it.

Let’s call out ageist speech and behavior whenever we encounter them. It doesn’t do our society any good to let expressions of ageism go unchallenged. By keeping silent under the guise of maintaining civility, we undermine the greater civility we need to preserve in a free society. There are kind (and even lighthearted) ways to call someone's attention to an anti-age statement or act. Each of us should figure out the most comfortable way of handling these situations in order to not let any such opportunity pass.

Let’s have civil conversations with unlikely people. The best antidote to this current atmosphere of divisiveness, turf-claiming, and wall-building is to deliberately expand our social networks. The only way to defeat ageism (as with the other social ills of racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia), is to sit down with people who hold beliefs and opinions that differ from ours and have mutually respectful conversations that explore our assumptions, fears, and hopes.

These four resolutions are only a few strategies that can help us this year as we seek to gain ground, rather than lose it to retrograde thinking and knee-jerk insecurity regarding issues of aging.

It’s no coincidence that the Romans placed Janus statues at crossroads and city gates and his plaques over doorways. We are entering a year in which taking the right path is more crucial than ever before. Will we insist on looking backward at a longstanding history of ridicule, marginalization, and neglect of “old people”? Or will we set our course toward an enlightened horizon of old age as the positive culmination of every previous stage of human development?


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