May is Older Americans Month. It is also Jewish American Heritage Month, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, Mental Health Awareness Month, National Physical Fitness and Sports Month, and National Foster Care Month but this is a blog about growing old.
In case you were wondering, Older Americans Month was proclaimed in 1963 by President John F. Kennedy and that led to the Older Americans Act (OOA) of 1965.
Through that Act, federal agencies, primarily the Administration on Aging, provide services and programs that help local communities promote the well-being of elders, particularly those that help elders live independently in their homes and communities.
So this time of year there are a lot of lunches and other activities to honor old people and I think we should take a day here at TGB to celebrate ourselves too.
We should do that for one day because during all the other 364, the universal doctrine that getting old is the the worst thing that can happen to anyone is what prevails.
If you spend any time at all with any kind of media (in the U.S., certainly), you are relentlessly blasted with anti-aging messages in so many forms that it takes entire books to explain them all. (I know; I own at least three of them.)
The perversion of language is among the worst. The word “young,” for example, is used as a synonym for healthy making the word “old” a synonym for sick. It happens hundreds of times a day in knee-jerk ways in movies, TV shows, books, magazines, newspapers, advertisements, conversation and more.
And it's not just a metaphor. To believe that the definition of old is sick is to cause real illness in yourself and lead to early death. Just accepting the negative stereotypes does that, as a growing body of evidence-based science is showing.
In January this year, CNN explained the results from one of the earliest of these research studies:
”In 2001, researchers from Yale and Harvard University looked at 660 participants between the ages of 50 and 80 who participated in a community-based survey, the Ohio Longitudinal Study of Aging and Retirement.
“They measured how self-perception of aging impacted survival over the course of 22.6 years. They found that participants who held a more positive attitude about their own aging - such as continuing to feel useful and happy - lived, on average, 7.5 years longer.
“In fact, they found that perception of aging influenced longevity even more than blood pressure, cholesterol, body mass index, or a person's tendency to exercise.
And a new study about old age and loneliness, published just last week in England, is the latest in a growing collection of similar results in various aspects of ageing:
”Brunel University London found that expectations and stereotypes of a lonely old age are predictors of actual loneliness. In a sample of 'not lonely' people over the age of 50 years old, a third expected to be lonely and a quarter agreed that old age is a time of loneliness.
“Those with negative stereotypes were twice as likely to report being lonely eight years later and those with low expectations were almost three times more likely to feel this way...
“This is especially significant given the willingness of younger people to accept the stereotype of old age as a time of insecurity, poor health and loneliness - a notion that has persisted in research findings since the 1950s.
“The new research could also shed light on the higher rates of loneliness in England compared with Europe where expectations and stereotypes about old age are quite different.”
Another study has shown that feelings of loneliness increase the risk of premature death by 14 percent.
Note that it is the old person's perception of old age that makes the difference. If you expect to be lonely, to be sick, to be unhappy, to die before your time you are more likely to experience that kind of old age – there is truth to self-fulfilling prophecy.
But you can change that. The way to celebrate Older Americans Month is to check your perspective. Are you harboring stereotypes and anti-aging beliefs about yourself or other old people?
Don't feel bad if you do – they've been brainwashing us about how awful old age is since the cradle. Just take some time to adjust remaining negative attitudes. You'll be healthier and happier for doing so.