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Elizabeth Wolfson: Healthy Aging — Contradiction or Reality?

A healthy attitudinal stance accepts the decline of the body as well as hidden opportunities

In a youth-oriented culture that inflates wrinkles with Botox and deflates our status as we age, directing interest toward the topic of aging is a hard sell. Yet, with baby boomers swelling the ranks, older adults — currently comprising about 15 percent of this country’s population — are the fastest-growing demographic.

Elizabeth Wolfson
Elizabeth Wolfson

California has the largest older adult population in the country, and it is estimated that by the year 2030, 25 percent of California’s population will be over age 60. In Santa Barbara County alone, there are 64,922 residents older than age 60; more than 15 percent of the county’s population. Given these astonishing statistics, we can deduce that each one of us is either aging or affected by someone aging. Yet, how many of us are really willing to consider the issues of aging let alone pay attention to what our own aging means to us?

The topic of aging may not be sexy, but we are all doing it, and it is time to pay attention and prepare for what we can — while we can. We know what aging “looks like,” but what do we know of “healthy aging,” other than that it sounds like a contradiction in terms?

To engage in a discussion of what “healthy” aging looks like, we must be willing to consider what our own aging means to us. This proposition is more challenging than it seems as it involves an acknowledgment that the mechanics of the body is moving toward diminished strength and our lives will increasingly incur losses. We are additionally challenged by the fact that embracing aging goes against the very grain of our youth-oriented culture and, consequently, our own inclinations. Moreover, to embrace our own aging, we must be willing to think about death, not with morbid fear, but in a meaningful way that incorporates the reality of death into life as the organic conclusion of our entire journey from birth.

Embracing aging and death are the last taboos, requiring nothing short of an attitudinal transformation, which is precisely what leads to “healthy aging.”

The heart of any discussion on “healthy aging” explores how the reality of the body in its downward descent dovetails with the potential for an enriched psychological awareness and heightened appreciation of life. A healthy attitudinal stance at any time of life embraces change and is open to new realities — in this case; the decline of the body, increased losses and death as well the many hidden opportunities that can be revealed if we know how to find them.

Should we be willing and able to engage in this attitudinal shift, we become exquisitely sensitized to the preciousness of time, more alert to and cognizant of the present. We may find ways to mine the richness of our time ahead, for example, by exploring long-held passions, embarking on new ventures, or developing new aspects of ourselves and our relationships.

In a recent New York Times interview (Jan. 29), the prolific poet-songwriter Leonard Cohen, who at age 77 has just released a new album, mused at how the nearing “deadline” of death “tends to insert itself into our consideration.” With mortality on his mind, Cohen is currently writing and producing albums and considering his next tour.

Indeed, our culture is increasingly presenting us with pop icons who serve as role models in producing, performing and engaging in creative endeavors well into their 70s! Can it be that the face of aging itself is changing?

Our individual and personal explorations are intrinsically embedded in a larger context of cultural, geographic, demographic, socio-economic and other issues that must be considered and understood. For example: What does it mean that an entire population of baby boomers is disproportionally swelling the numbers of aged populations? Will this group approach aging in a significantly different manner than did previous generations, given the paradigm cultural shift engendered by their participation in the revolutions of the 1960s and ‘70s? What is the impact of the reality that we are all living healthier and longer? What are the unique challenges for the different genders, given our different aging processes and the fact that women statistically outlive men? What does retirement mean in an economy that has propelled older adults into extended or second careers and younger adults back into dependency on parental support?

These and other questions can serve as a source of inspiration dovetailing with personal exploration and emotional evolution as we consider: How will psychological and spiritual awareness serve us? How will our self-worth be measured as work, relationships, and our physical and cognitive capacities shift? Can we be enriched and find inspiration from the process of aging itself? Can we trust ourselves and all that we have learned from experience to “let go,” of what we can’t control and be more fully present in what is available to us?

The process of considering these questions is itself a catalyst for lively engagement and vibrant appreciation of all that may be encountered during the later stages of life. I hope to continue this discussion in future articles where I will expand upon some of these and other questions. I look forward to engaging with readers who might posing their own thoughts and questions. The willingness to begin this discussion is undoubtedly, the beginning of “healthy aging.”

— Elizabeth Wolfson, Ph.D., LCSW, is chair of the Master’s in Clinical Psychology program at Antioch University Santa Barbara and in private practice in Santa Barbara. She has been a licensed practicing psychotherapist for more than 26 years, is the author of several published articles and is an editor of the Psychotherapy section of Wolfson is a founder of the recently launched Santa Barbara Village, a community membership organization supporting elders in their homes. Most recently, Wolfson developed the new Concentration in Healthy Aging within the Master’s in Clinical Psychology program at Antioch University Santa Barbara.

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