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The "Wow" Factor

We commit a great social injustice by failing to recognize and accept the variety of ways to be a child, or a teen, or a middle-aged adult...or an old person.



That's the word I'm hearing us adults say most often these days regarding the wave of activism led by many teenagers and Millennials in their efforts to impact social and political policy. We're highly impressed by their passion, integrity, and organizational skills -- in short, with their...maturity.

But what do we really mean when we say that word? Aren't we actually assuming that the mature behavior these cohorts display is exceptional rather than typical? And is that because we have a very narrow view of the capabilities of a young person?

It's funny, but people use the same word when reacting to older adults who do what they consider to be exceptionally youthful (or at least middle-aged) things, such a run a marathon, sky-dive, bungee-jump, or climb a mountain. "Wow!"

There's a strange pattern here. We're surprised by young people who display what we consider to be the kind of sophistication and wisdom that we associate only with experience and age, as well as by elders who display the physical stamina, prowess, and productivity of people decades younger. It's as if to be young means only to be strong and to be old means only to be wise. (At this point, it's worth stating the obvious that not all young people have the same physical abilities and not all old people are equally wise.)

Five years ago, Dr. Bill Thomas blogged on his website about a particularly insidious word, "still," which, while it is usually used to praise active older adults, actually diminishes the concept of aging in its entirety. He wrote, "We live in an age when older people are deemed worthy only to the degree that, in their thoughts and actions, they resemble young people. This ethos is very rigidly applied and we all know what happens to older people who can't still do the things that adults are supposed to do. They disappear."

Let's consider this disappearing act that our culture imposes on the old. It's based on two fears. The first is the fear of death, for which old age is the most common precursor. The second is the collective fear of an inevitable, cumulative state of deterioration that we mistakenly attribute to aging. When we assume that all older adults are destined to have stooped postures, cognitive decline, poor eyesight or hearing, slower reaction times, etc. (false assumptions, by the way), we assume that fate for ourselves and fear it. Needing to ease our minds, we resort to a number of strategies to avoid identifying with our future selves and thus seek to distance ourselves from that scenario. We tell ageist jokes, we avert our gaze as we pass elders on the street, we don't think of including old people in our social activities or policy making efforts. We erase older adults from our social landscape.

What we lack because of this second fear is a more complete, realistic understanding of what it is to grow old. Increased life experience and several significant positive changes in the brain actually help improve older adults' emotional well-being and can promote greater flexibility, resilience, and a more sophisticated perspective on life. Whenever we apply a "Wow!" factor to older adults based on our assessment of how closely they resemble much younger people, we fail to appreciate the complexity and richness of many others who may not be able -- or may not choose -- to run a marathon, climb a mountain, work full-time, or even physically resemble someone 40 years younger.

We commit a great social injustice by failing to recognize and accept the variety of ways to be a child, or a teen, or a middle-aged adult...or an old person.

Of course, we should always be excited by and supportive of the efforts of others. But to do this in a realistic and fair way, we need to see one another as individuals rather than as examples of a successful or unsuccessful way to live out a certain age. We must remove the factor of age out of any equation expressing the achievements of a human being.

For me, it's a matter of having a simple hope. I dream that someday we'll be living in a pro-aging society that understands that all kinds of people at all kinds of ages do (or not do) all kinds of things, a society that promotes their right to live however they choose to live. Maybe someday our "Wow" responses will be replaced by "Ho-hum" ones.

Wow. Wouldn't that be something to achieve?


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