Equating aging with senescence is like confusing our journey with the car we're driving along the way.
Recently, I brought in my 32-year-old Honda Civic LX sedan for its scheduled oil and filter change. Amid the usual exchange of pleasantries and amazed questions regarding how my remarkably trusty car was doing (“Aging, like its owner,” is my usual flippant reply) was the discovery that yet another part, this time the windshield wiper fluid hose, was brittle and broken. Unfortunately, as has become more common with my car, there was no way to find a new part to replace it because it was no longer being manufactured, and used parts compatible with a 1990 vehicle are extremely rare. I’d now have to resign myself to carrying a jar of fluid to pour on the windshield to clean it.
As I drove home, disappointed but still grateful for my three-decades-plus ride, I realized that we talk about our aging selves in virtually the same way we talk about our cars: in purely physical terms. We anticipate gradually wearing out, with maintenance being a more frequent and challenging issue. And we become increasingly preoccupied with wondering how many more miles we have left to go and how easily we’ll be able to get around.
But here’s where we make a huge mistake in perception: Because we are organic, sentient beings, aging involves much more than the physical wear-and-tear process, known as senescence, that accompanies us through life.
In the introduction to her groundbreaking book Ageism Unmasked: Exploring Age Bias and How to End It, gerontologist Tracey Gendron defines the difference between senescence and aging:
Senescence is the process of biological aging that leads to the gradual deterioration of function in cells and/or organisms.
Aging, on the other hand, is the universal lifelong biological, social, and spiritual process of developing over time. Aging is dynamic and includes all processes, including growth, loss, maintenance, and adaptation. Aging is multidimentional and multidirectional.
Viewing the holistic and complex process of aging solely through the lens of biological senescence promotes a one-sided, decline-based view of aging....
Aging is a slow and steady process of change that ultimately leads us to becoming our unique, individual selves.
If all we focus on is the singular deterioration of our body rather than on the many opportunities to experience adventure and growth, then of course it makes sense to fear and dread getting old. Let's instead change our attitudes about aging by considering the ways in which we're unique, individual selves and how over time we’ve matured as drivers on the journey through life.
Here's my take:
When I first learned to drive, I was so unsure about keeping my car within the lines of the lane that I focused my gaze right above the hood rather than on the road up ahead. This obviously made it challenging for me to remain aware of other cars and pedestrians, not to mention of which streets I was crossing and where I needed to turn.
Now, after decades of experience, although my reaction time may be slightly slower and I get tired more easily on very long trips, I and my car “are one.” I break smoothly, drive defensively, and know my car’s limitations so well that I easily factor them in when assessing road conditions. I’m confident in getting my bearings and thus less afraid of getting lost, knowing that I can safely navigate my way around unforeseen obstacles and roadwork detours. Most importantly, I'm traveling to new places all the time.
It's the same with how I've aged. I've had many years of experiencing change ––– the "growth, loss, maintenance, and adaptation" of Gendron's definition. So getting older is a far richer process than the mere, slow transformation of my body's cells. They are simply senescing, not "aging, like their owner."
However, there are two vital things we need to consider: the environment in which we travel and the road conditions it creates. Even if we do all we can to keep our senescing bodies (including our minds) in working order, the quality of our lives equally depends on how well the aging process is supported by our culture. When an ageist society, demanding that we stay young, pushes us to do whatever it takes to look, perform, and produce consistently throughout life or give up our car keys and get out of the way, it sets up road blocks and creates dangerous potholes and slick surfaces that can cause us to lose control, veer off our course, crash ... and even die.
All of us need to move our collective eyes upward from what's immediately before us and to a place farther down the road, where we're all headed. We should be creating social policies that multiply, widen, and smooth the routes so anyone can go the distance safely. And most of all, we should stop thinking that ageing involves nothing but senescence.
It's not enough to ensure that we have many miles to go. Of what value is the journey if the trip is a needlessly discouraging, rough, and dangerous ride?