Montclair Local is excited to launch Modern Aging, a column devoted to exploring the longevity revolution nationally and its impact locally here in Montclair.
Why do we even need a term like Modern Aging? Why isn’t the term aging enough?
Seniors, elders, ‘third agers”…as we head into the onrushing silver tsunami, the longstanding terminology just does not fit our extended human life profile anymore. Our species is experiencing the consequences of success, especially with respect to breakthroughs in medicine and public policy.
The fact is we are in the midst of a longevity revolution. Our demographic and those who follow us are living longer lives than the six generations that preceded us. One hundred and twenty years ago the average age expectancy was 58 years old. And now our financial advisors are telling us to plan for life expectancy into our 90s. Why does this matter? How has this new “age wave” impacted us, our communities, our nation, and our globe? And, how will our society function when there are more people over the age of 60 than there are children in our communities?
The impacts are numerous and far-reaching; here are some of the subtle and not-so-subtle ways modern aging impacts us.
As individuals, we have to start asking ourselves not what our life span should be, but what our health span will be. Sure, it is wonderful to add years to our birthday check-off, but how do we want to spend those extra years? Once we have controlled for our risk factors, modern elders are shifting from asking the question “How long shall we live?” to “What should we live for?” Added years after retirement actually give us choices our parents and grandparents never had, such as creating a bucket list; seeing grandkids get married; keeping our brains and bodies as active as possible; finding ways to volunteer and give back to our communities; finding new ways to socialize when we don’t want to drive at night or during snow days. It is no accident that the physical fitness and self-care business is booming both locally and nationally. How many of us block out quality time at the gym before scheduling any other activity in our calendars? And this is a very smart tactic. Physicians tell us the best path to a successful health span is to keep our blood circulating to all vital parts of the body.
To be honest, learning new things in this stage of life is not as easy as it was 25 years ago. We have to work harder to keep old brain synapses firing and new synapses forming. Wordle anyone? Or how about Spelling Bee, Word with Friends, Tiles, etc.? Inevitably, as we enjoy our added years, our brains shift focus. And we have to exercise that muscle, too, to keep in shape.
But medical science has demonstrated that another brain function, strategic problem solving, becomes more active in modern elders. Why? Think of your brain as a big filing cabinet. Just like the physical filing cabinet in your office, as we grow older, the filing cabinet drawers in our brains have gotten overcrowded and messy. It is often hard to put your finger on that exact piece of information you need to find. So, being ever resilient creatures, humans use their aging brains to engage in creative problem solving to get where they want to go. One anecdote described by a leading gerontologist retells the story of a modern elder and his wife whose late-arriving Christmas Eve train made finding a cab at a suburban station difficult. They needed to get to their son’s suburban home in time. The father saw a pizza parlor at the train station. The pizza parlor advertised that they delivered. He went in, ordered a pizza, gave his son’s address, and asked to hitch a ride in the delivery van for his wife and himself. This kind of out-of-the-box thinking could be described as wisdom. And the longer we keep the problem-solving parts of our brains active, the better we can navigate a world that, on a daily basis, will be throwing us new technology — telehealth, telebanking, A.I. and who knows what-else-is-to-come. (Join our Montclair Gateway to Aging in Place Smart Seniors/Smart Tech training program to keep current.)
Ultimately, the modern elder will inevitably confront another consequence of extended survival. We do not want to create a society of age apartheid where the modern elder sees him or herself as so different from younger folks that we unwittingly encourage unwanted ageism. Organizations like Montclair Gateway to Aging in Place recognize and promote intergenerational programs, not as exercises in art projects and story-telling, but as opportunities for honest conversations and listening sessions where all participants can explore what modern aging is, and what it holds for the future. Modern aging starts with youngsters who see the progression toward a health plan as active cultivation of patterns of living and planning. When they look at a modern elder, we want them to focus on what that person is capable of, not their age.
Ann Lippel is president of Montclair Gateway to Aging in Place.