GOOD AND BAD NEWS
Is aging just about facing change and loss? Examples abound, like loss of friends, family and passions. But in the face of all this, I notice I am still here. To continue functioning happily, I need new directions, new focus and to let go of old ones. Aging takes true grit and internal strength. We may not be able to walk so far, see so well, or hear as well as we once did, but we are living longer than ever before. The latest statistics report the average life expectancy in the United States is 77.6 years. According to Hooyman and Kiyak, authors of Social Gerontology: A Multidisciplinary Perspective, in 1900 forty percent of the population was under seventeen, and only four percent was over sixty-five. Now, ten percent of the American population is sixty-five and older. People are not just living longer but the aging population is also healthier. There is more access to and better health care. We have better support services. Baby Boomers can and are changing professions after retiring. A businessman becomes a teacher, a housewife, learns and teaches piano, a medical doctor takes up photography. These are just a few examples of people developing new or expanding old areas of interest. People are more able to live alone for longer periods of time. People just don’t seem to be as incapable, at these younger older ages.
AGING IS POSITIVE?
In addition, new discoveries about the way the aging brain functions have altered what we can expect from aging fundamentally. Dr. Gene D. Cohen, in his book The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of The Aging Brain, discusses the gifts and limitations of the aging brain. He mentions that much of the mental decline that has been associated with aging is caused by “micro-strokes”, not aging. This can be true for Alzheimer’s disease and mental illnesses, like depression. He points out that the healthy older brain, if managed by some simple activities, can maintain its ability to the end of life. He states that the brain has embedded neural pathways, developed from repeated use. In other words, research indicates that with repetition the brain exhibits increased functioning that stays with us. As a matter of fact, the more complex the knowledge base and the more brain areas developed in daily use, the more it resists deterioration by injury and disease. Senior health is better than anyone ever expected.
With all these findings, why would anyone give up the next opportunity to live well into the end of life. There is so much more left of life to live. The questions become: What are we going to do with these years? How can we take this new path and make the most of it? How are we going to start over?