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Aging – let’s change the story

By Terry Donovan

The fact that we have an increasing population of older adults should be viewed as good news and not the negative view often associated with aging. If we believe that growing older is about retiring from paid work, physical decline, inactivity, and increased dependence on our health care system and other social resources, then we need to take a second look and question our beliefs.

There are many who believe aging is coupled with being frail, unhealthy or dependent. While this is true for some, the majority of older adults do not fit this description. In a youth-oriented society there are not many positive images of aging, thus growing older is viewed in negative terms. Many also believe that with the increased numbers of older adults in our aging population they are a drain on society and its public resources.

When seniors are viewed this way it is a form of discrimination known as ageism. Ageism is based on inaccurate assumptions about the capacity of the majority of older adults to live productive lives. This stereotype is hurtful and limits some seniors from engaging with others because of a self-adopted ageism belief or by overt forms of ageism from the people they encounter. One area in particular of stereotyping is the belief that seniors are responsible for the ever-increasing health care costs. While an aging population does require increased health services, the real increases are due to expansion of health care services, overall population growth, and health-care-specific inflation. The cost of drugs, for example, is becoming unaffordable for many, not just seniors.

We cannot use a term SENIORS and assume one size fits all. In fact there are as many different sub-groups of seniors as there are different groups of teenagers. Among older adults there is a vast range of interests, abilities, and of course age differentials. It would be very unfair to assume all teenagers are alike and it is just as unfair to make that assumption about seniors that one size fits all. Seniors are a diverse group with a variety of experiences and social backgrounds. To lump them into one category is just not possible and is simply wrong.

Some older adults may like being identified as a senior because they have a positive view of being an elder, especially when it is used to imply wisdom obtained from a lifetime of experiences. But many more seniors, especially the baby-boom generation (those born between 1946 and 1964), are not ready to accept that they are old, in decline and should slow down. They are changing the concept of aging and pushing the process to new limits. They are active: jogging, running, biking, working out, playing golf, tennis, hockey, and skiing. Check out the Wellness Centre in the mornings or the Westville exercise group on Mondays and Thursdays mornings as well as many other locations where you will find a large number of very active and fit older adults. They are actively engaged socially in clubs and organizations.

Let’s switch the story and recognize that when people value the contributions and wisdom of older adults it makes it easier for them to maintain their self worth. We can choose to either buy into the myth that seniors are a drain on society or to take advantage of the reality that seniors contribute significantly. Seniors have made, and continue to make, a profound contribution in their communities and as part of the workforce.

Engaged seniors are a valuable asset in our communities, not simply people looking for services, but helping to provide them. One example is in our local hospitals where more than 70 per cent of the volunteers are 60-plus years old.

We can all think of a senior who has been a positive influence in our lives. They are mentors, teachers, grandparents and partners. They are friends, neighbours, advisers, caregivers, employers and employees, business owners, artists, musicians, and community leaders. They are volunteers and role models. They have contributed generously, building families, communities, and workplaces. Many are still gainfully employed and occupy management positions.

Celebrating seniors is an important way to promote positive images of aging. Let’s seize the opportunity that an aging population presents and do our best to accommodate active aging in age-friendly communities. Many of our aging friends, neighbours, and relatives are living where they choose in their home communities. It is here that they have personal comforts, supports, and security. Our desire to age well and continue contributing does not suddenly change when we hit the magic age of 50-plus or even 65 when we become pensioners or eligible to older-age benefits. Communities that value the contributions and wisdom of older persons benefit and where seniors are welcomed they are able to maintain their feelings of self worth and the right to make their own decisions and life choices.

In closing I leave you with these thoughts about aging. “Aging is not lost youth, but a new stage of opportunity and strength” (Betty Friedan). It’s about living longer with a sense of wellness, having opportunities to be engaged with others, and feeling valued. So be positive about our aging population and where you see a need, advocate for improvements.

Terry Donovan is President of the Pictou County Senior Council

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