Improving with age

“Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

Mark Twain

I’m not going to lie to you, getting older is … awesome! Fewer responsibilities, more time to yourself, less social pressure, more stable relationships, a calmer outlook. Positive psychology and I have some pretty – well, positive – things to say about ageing. So for those of you heading into your ‘middle-adulthood’ and older, take that walking stick off lay-by and spend your money on a short course or new pair of runners instead. Here are some of the pros to ageing you may not have thought about.

Older, happier, smarter, still sexy

Despite the portrayals of ageing as a time of deterioration and disease, getting older doesn’t equate to getting sicker, sadder, or more senile. In fact, research shows that most adults over 65 enjoy remarkable physical, psychological, and social health. Below are a few myths we can bust about ageing.

Myth 1: All old people are sad and depressed

It’s well documented that the older you get, the more satisfied you are with life. In fact, older adults have the highest levels of life satisfaction of all age groups, as well as the highest levels of relationship satisfaction with spouses, families, and friends. Also, as you age, you’re better able to control your emotions. Older adults are better than younger people are harnessing attention and memory resources that prioritise positive information over negative information. This improves emotional self-regulation and makes them more emotionally stable than younger people. Finally, rates of mental health disorders actually decrease dramatically with age, with one in four Australians aged 16 to 24 experiencing a mental health issue compared to only one in twenty Australians aged 75 to 85.

Myth 2: As you get older, your IQ drops

First, there are two distinct types of intelligence: ‘fluid’ intelligence and ‘crystallised’ intelligence. Older people consistently outperform younger people on tasks requiring crystallised intelligence, which is the accumulation of knowledge, facts and skills gained across a lifetime. On average, this makes older people superior at activities involving vocabulary and language, verbal memory, semantic knowledge, spatial skills, history and geography, social situations, inductive reasoning, and inferences. And while fluid intelligence (which dictates cognitive processing speed and memory capacity) does decline slightly as we age, older adults generally employ more-complex and more-thorough processing of information to compensate for losses and maintain performance.

Myth 3: Sex stops when your hair goes grey

Many older adults continue to have sex well into their 80s, with people over 70 reporting the same levels of sexual satisfaction as both young adults and those in midlife. In fact, many people over 60 report having better sex lives now than they did in middle age. Now there’s something to look forward to.

Myth 5: Older people are less employable

Most older Australians aren’t sitting around biding their time till retirement. They want to continue working into later age, but face discrimination by employers who misguidedly favour younger applicants. Frankly, it’s the employer’s loss. Studies show that older employees are just as enthusiastic, productive, and trainable as younger workers. They can also have superior interpersonal skills when dealing with clients and colleagues. And that improved crystallised intelligence we talked about earlier means older workers can be more capable than younger workers in situations that are complex, inconsistent, uncertain, contradictory, imperfect, or that require compromise.  

But wait, there’s more! Still not convinced? This article on the BBC website lists even more advantages to ageing, including the nifty fact that older people have fewer allergies and colds.

Images clockwise from top left: Filipe Almeida on Unsplash, Ingela Skullman from Pixabay, Renate Vanaga on Unsplash, Cristian Newman on Unsplash Bruno Aguirre on Unsplash, Dylan Sauerwein on Unsplash

Ageism and the myth of a ‘population-ageing crisis’

The myth: The myth of older people being a burden is just that. A myth. Older people are often portrayed as a drain on society, and a financial burden to future generations, but this isn’t supported by statistics or research. Economic researchers at Monash Uni’s Centre for Population and Urban Research have shown how Australia’s fears of an ‘ageing-population crisis’ are likely based on skewed data and unreasonable assumptions that don’t take into account cohort effects such as the improved health and longer working lives of older Australians as time goes on. If such factors are worked into government projections, researchers claim, there likely won’t even be an ageing ‘problem’, let alone a crisis.

The reality: Research by The Australia Institute shows that the ageing ‘baby boomer’ generation are the wealthiest, healthiest, most active retirees yet, with high levels of work involvement, property ownership, superannuation, and private savings. In fact, up until 75 at least, most people are providers of help and support, not receivers of it. Many older people donate their time, energy and money to providing financial assistance to family members, childcare for grandkids, practical and emotional care to sick spouses and friends, and skills and knowledge through a myriad of volunteering roles. Without such contributions by older Australians, the economic burden of paying for such services would be crippling. So instead of pushing the myth that older people are a drain, we should be celebrating their contributions, and finding ways to further harness their lifetimes of accumulated skills and knowledge.

Keeping age in perspective

Most of the so-called negatives associated with ageing are related to physical decline and cultural ideals around the ‘loss’ of youth and beauty. Regarding the former, the Victorian Government’s Better Health Channel suggests that half of all physical decline in older age is actually is due to a lack of physical activity. So if you want to stay strong and healthy in your later years, get off the couch or office chair and get active instead. As for the latter, I hate to break it to you, but modern society’s idolisation of youth and beauty is a cultural construct that has nothing to do with actual health and wellbeing. Grey hairs and sagging skin aren’t a ‘loss’ or a negative, and they don’t make a person any less productive, attractive, or worthwhile. Not unless you buy into the cultural stereotypes that tell you they do.

Every single developmental age has difficulties and drawbacks, and the ones associated with ‘older age’ aren’t better or worse than at other times of life. (Remember adolescence? Ugh. A time of weird sexual development, popularity contests, arbitrary parental rules, and a complete lack of control over your own life. Or how about your twenties and thirties? AKA Get a house, get a career, get possessions, get a life partner, get kids, get successful, get ADULTY. Now get MORE of all that and juggle, juggle, JUGGLE!)

Older age isn’t all negative and it isn’t all positive, and we should be careful of viewing it at either end of a purely positive/purely negative spectrum. In truth, the very best age to be is the one you are right now. Appreciate it, enjoy it, embrace it.

But if you’re worried about ageing, watch this video and take a leaf out of Cliff, Emilia Tereza, and John’s collective books. With over 300 years of combined wisdom on the subject, they now a thing or two about positivity and making the most of older age.

Change your mind and make the most of ageing

Look for the positives

Take a moment to jot down all the positives you can think of about ageing. Try to get beyond the surface issues (like those wrinkles and greying hair) and consider your overall position in life: financially, socially, career-wise, relationship-wise, emotionally, cognitively etc. Hopefully you’ll come up with a bunch of reasons why getting older equals getting better. If not, it might be an opportunity to examine those areas of your life you’re less happy with and make some steps towards improving them.

Engage in lifelong learning

You can very definitely teach an old dog new tricks. Research here and here shows that older adults demonstrate no real decline in ability until after 75 years of age (even then, for most people it’s minimal), and that continued informal learning throughout life can stave off cognitive decline, reduce dependency on social services, and aid social and psychological wellbeing. To stay mentally sharp and socially connected, enrol in a short-course, take up a new hobby or instrument, or join a local community group.

Physical activity

Physical activity is a major factor in reducing the incidence of chronic disease, cognitive decline, and dementia. If you’re out of shape and spend a lot of time sitting, set a timer and make it a habit to get up and move around every half an hour or so. If TV’s your thing, go for a stroll in the ad breaks or between shows. You could also make it a habit to walk around while talking on the phone, or stand up to read the paper.

For people with low to mid-level fitness, housework and gardening are both productive forms of exercise. If you’d rather get out of the house, try going for a solo walk around the neighbourhood, or join a walking group for extra social benefits.

Finally, for those looking for more hardcore activities, swimming, cardio, and weight training at the local gym would be a great place to test your mettle. A friend of mine recently told me about her 80 year old parents, who are both in a cycling club with similar aged peers and ride the streets of Melbourne every day. Amazing.

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