How Do You Think About Old Age?
As an American, I’ve grown up steeped in a culture that prizes youth. “Anti-aging” advertising engulfs all kinds of products—cosmetics, exercise gadgets, and even food. The heroes of our films usually fall between the ages of 18-40, and the actors who play them are praised for “aging well,” somehow maintaining physiques that rest outside of time. People dye their silver hair, pump their faces full of fillers, and make jokes about and jesters of the aged. Not to mention, fear of death is ubiquitous. Rather than celebrate a well-lived life, the general impression is that there could be nothing grimmer than the end of the human career.
Why are we like this? We don’t typically ask ourselves what harm comes from living a youth-centric life. Are we setting ourselves up for unnecessary sadness, distress, or even self-loathing down the line when the things we’ve disparaged about our elderly inevitably arrive at our doorstep?
What are the downsides of youth-culture? Could we be doing things differently? Is it time we laid our love of youth in the grave?
Where Does American Youth-Culture Come From?
A lot of pieces go into the making of youth-culture. I’m no anthropologist, but after reading a few studies, here are some points I have gathered.
The instincts of the human animal are partly to blame. Like every other wild creature, we’re both preoccupied with tending to our young and participating in reproduction. Our attention spans are hard-wired to prioritize these functions, so there’s some element of predisposition here.
Beyond that, we need to crack an American history textbook. The founding acts of our country demanded a vital populace, the median age for immigrants being in the low thirties, with most people arriving between the ages of fifteen and thirty. Other ideas came with religion. Our modern hybrid of government and industry harkens back to the “Protestant work ethic,” which “ties an individual’s value to his or her ability to work—something that diminishes in old age.” Even as settlements were founded and the physical demands of life lessened as a whole, the attitudes of pioneering and survivalism had fully manifested themselves as hallmarks of the national experience. The wild flush of youth was officially in the American bloodstream. And so was our prejudice against old age.
The Side-Effects of Emblemized Youth
In Gerontology and Geriatric Medicine, a peer-reviewed medical journal published in 2022, scientists Hyun Kang and Hansol Kim detailed a systematic study of the harmful effects of ageism (prejudice against old age), and thereby, youth-culture.
The study “confirmed a negative association between ageism and older adults’ psychological well-being,” claiming that when “negative beliefs and attitudes towards older adults are… prevalent,” seniors “confine themselves to age-related stereotypes, becoming weak, unhealthy, and even less able to accept new learning opportunities.” In turn, this behavior leads to “decreased self-efficacy and increased negative emotions” in our elder population.
What this means is that our throwaway attitude regarding the elderly is having a physical impact. It’s a feedback loop. We champion our youth and fail to recognize the value of our seniors. As a result, senior citizens fail to recognize their worth and predominately embody the invalid stereotype. When it comes to our health, what we believe about ourselves matters.
Also prevalent in American society is the isolation of the elderly. While other cultures reap the benefits and tackle the special challenges of longstanding, multi-generational households and elderly integration, the self-sufficient and profit-focused credo of the States can inadvertently force our seniors into hiding. As they leave the workforce and become less physically able, their domiciles and the people in their immediate vicinity become their entire worlds. This solitude can have deadly consequences. “Loneliness is considered as much of a public health hazard as obesity, according to research presented at the American Psychological Association conference…”
As we enter an epoch where many of the world’s nations have more elderly than ever (some having disproportionately more seniors than young people), we must re-examine our attitudes toward old age. I believe this assessment will prepare us to embrace, accept, and graciously care for our seniors and ourselves as we all get older together.
Different Perspectives – A Sampling
In the spirit of the aforementioned shift, I have gathered a few examples of practices we could implement (and the countries they come from) to better honor our elders.
- Open up the home. As I briefly mentioned above, many other cultures will typically have grandparents, parents, and children living in the same household. As inflation rates and the cost of living continue to rise, we may also see a shift toward this model. One such country with this standard of normal is Japan. “In Japan, it is a common custom to have multiple generations of a family living together in one home,” and “grandparents frequently assist with… childcare and meal preparation. This tradition is considered one of many reasons that seniors in Japan live longer than in any other country.”
- Prioritize care through listening. In Scotland, culture is being reshaped. The nation has publicly pledged to “hear their elderly” by shifting “away from hospitals and toward preventative care,” and to keep them involved in making decisions about their health. “One of the things that irk the elderly is to be frozen out of… discussions about them. Ever take your mom to the doctor only to have him speak about her directly to you, as if she wasn’t even there?” Yeah, that can’t feel good. We can pledge to better respect our seniors by treating them as free agents and trusting them to use that agency to voice their wants.
- Share housing. The Netherlands is pioneering a housing scenario pairing college students and nursing home residents. “Dutch students live in nursing homes… and in exchange for 30 hours of volunteering with the senior residents each month, students live rent-free in their rooms.” Seniors also gain something from this arrangement as the students teach them new skills, play musical instruments for their entertainment, and regularly socialize with bright young minds. “Residents benefit immensely from contact with younger people who spend time with them, keep them up to date on the outside world, and form real connections. The hope is that students will continue to volunteer after they graduate college.”
- Beauty at any age. This comes from no nation but the author’s heart: we can help cast a golden light downstream by normalizing the biological processes of aging. By loosing white hair instead of dying it, letting wrinkles be wrinkles, and remaining optimistic in the face of physique changes, memory loss, and all the other physical changes characteristic of getting older, I believe we can make the world a kinder place for all age groups.
I don’t have an answer for bettering the plight of American seniors or a surefire counter to youth-culture. I’m merely presenting a sample platter. What I will say is that I believe there is immense value in our elderly that we could all make more of an effort to unearth. They should be thought of as empowered entities— independent, active, and self-sufficient— yet integrated well enough to banish the message of “you’re only worth something as long as you’re capable of work.” It’s clear that damage is being done by youth-culture, and more can be done to stop it.
Following that thread, I believe this article by Colorado State University put it best:
“It’s important to understand that age is not an indication of ability. The more the population ages, the more important it is to keep this in mind. Older adults deserve respect, consideration, and understanding, just like any other member of society. As the population ages and grows, so should we. We should embrace an older generation, build on their strengths, and continue to develop our world to be more understanding and inclusive.”
If you’d like to read more about other challenges facing the American elderly, this article may interest you!
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