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April 20, 2021

Would you test positive for ageing?

I’ve been mulling over the term ‘positive ageing’, a term that has surfed the pages of the agerati for the past 10-20 years.

I wondered how my slightly curmudgeonly father would have reacted if I’d suggested that he age positively? I suspect he would tell me in no uncertain terms to mind my own business – he’d age how he wanted!

It reminds me of the joke about the two older men at the bar of a working men’s club watching a stand-up comic: one turns to the other and asks, “What do you think of the comedian?” the other takes a sip of beer and replies… “He’s alright…if you like laughing”.

How did it come to this? Did Methuselah need to be urged to age positively? Legend has it he lived to be 969! …have people been ageing willy-nilly without benefit of this advice for years?

Do we really need to be urged, or perhaps reminded, to age positively? Really? …considering the alternative?

However, do we even admit to our ageing?

A few years ago instead of asking “How are you?” I started asking people I met “How are you ageing today?” The reactions were interesting: people appeared taken aback and slightly insulted that I should be inferring that they were ageing….me ageing? What are you implying?

Ageing is what happens when you are alive…. but it would seem that most of us fear ageing. This fear is installed from an early age – children as young as four are aware of their culture’s age stereotypes and these are reinforced across the lifespan. (See ‘A global campaign to challenge ageism’, Bulletin of the World Health Organisation) We are then bombarded daily by friends, family, media and society with the negative overtones of growing older and no longer ‘cutting it’ as economically active, fertile, potent, strong, attractive, desirable or ‘of worth’!

We find it difficult to cope with change as we age, and that goes double for our relationship with our bodies – look at all the ageist birthday cards and the mocking of ageing bodies. We appear to grow up with an internal view of our ageing ‘peak’, after which it’s all downhill and it’s all over!

My grandmother told me of when my grandfather somehow managed to slip out one day and buy a suit on his own. Apparently the salesman saw him coming and sold him a suit which according to my grandmother only fitted when he was going upstairs on a bus that was going around a corner! Do we have a conceptual view of our ‘peak age?’, of when our age suits us?… is it when we are going upstairs on a bus going around a corner?

How do we feel about ageing? A colleague once told me that the reason there wasn’t a strong older people’s movement – similar to the feminist or anti-racist movement – was because nobody liked the thought of being considered an older person themselves.

Thinks…. can you catch ageing? Should we be testing for ageing? We certainly seem to want to stop it – In 2020, the global anti-ageing market was estimated to be worth about $58.5 billion.

Research published in 2002 by Becca Levy in America revealed a strong causal link between the negative attitudes that people held towards their own ageing process and their subsequently reduced lifespan. The research showed unequivocally that: “those with a negative outlook towards their own ageing died, on average, 7.5 years earlier than other people with a more positive view”.

The crazy irony is that our society is ageing. The average life expectancy of a baby born this year is expected to be 100.3 years. We’re living longer and yet society is increasingly youth-centric; we worship ‘being young’, cling to our ‘youth’, and the pressure’s on for young people to ‘make it’, achieve, have it all…. by… age 25?

The term ageing has become synonymous with older people. Yet obviously we are ageing from birth and the internalised ageism sets in when we’re young. So to maximise the potency of the adage positive ageing, rather than only pointing at older people, shouldn’t we be embedding this in the nurturing, rearing and education of the young?

Positive ageing could then enable us to be in harmony with our minds, bodies and spirit, and value ourselves and others, throughout our lives!

Dave Martin
Centre for Policy on Ageing