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Attitudes in Aging, Part I: Cultural

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Sophia Petrillo Estelle GettyA woman gets up in the morning. After breakfast, she goes to the grocery store. While there, she encounters a friend who is being mistreated by store management. She stands up for her friend and advocates on her behalf, which results in a just outcome. She leaves there and goes to the boardwalk, where she meets several of her friends who are part of a musical ensemble. She conducts them as they play jazz for the passersby, collecting donations for a local health clinic. After lunch at the boardwalk, she sometimes takes an art class with one of her friends, but this day, she goes to her local hospital to volunteer for the afternoon. Once there, she delivers flowers, helps visitors find their way around, and cheers up patients, including a child who is HIV positive. She gives him some fruit she purchased that morning and encourages him to not give up hope. By the time she gets home, it’s nearly dark outside. She’s had a very productive day, and she’ll do it all again tomorrow.

The woman in this scenario is 82 years old. She’s also fictional—Sophia Petrillo from the ’80’s sitcom The Golden Girls—but she demonstrates an important truth: being older does not mean that your life is over, or that you no longer have any useful contributions to make to your family or society.

In this first of two articles on attitudes in aging, we’ll explore cultural attitudes about aging, and next time, personal attitudes about aging.

Ageism and age discrimination is a problem in our culture. As a group, older adults are seen as second-class citizens with little or nothing to offer society and subject to vastly inaccurate stereotypes, including:

• They have hearing problems
• They’re foolish or stupid
• They’re feeble
• They’re depressed and lonely
• They’re easily manipulated
• They’re unproductive and inflexible
• They have failing cognitive function

As a result of these stereotypes, older adults are often dismissed, their concerns and feelings downplayed or ignored by others, including their own physicians. They are frequently treated like children and spoken to like babies, even when they show no signs of physical or cognitive decline. Such stereotypes are formed in childhood and often carried throughout life so that, eventually, those who had once subjected others to stereotypes become the object of the same stereotyping (this can lead some older adults to self-stereotype, something we will explore further in our next article). It’s a dreadful cycle, but one that can be broken.

Even though our culture may send the message that life ends when you reach a certain age, this is simply not true. There is still a great deal of life left to live, and any number of accomplishments to achieve, even for people who do experience physical or cognitive decline as they age. Just because our culture views you differently, you don’t have to adopt those views. The truth is, older adults are shattering the stereotypes listed above and are participating fully in life. Many people over 65 still work, travel, and volunteer, and baby boomers account for nearly half of all consumer spending. There are many ways in which you can continue to spread your wings. Here are a few:

College. Many older adults return to college, either to pursue a degree they didn’t have the opportunity to pursue when they were younger, or simply for fun and the love of learning. At least one college or university in every state will reduce or waive tuition and fees for older adults.attitudes in aging cultural
Hobbies. If you have an interest, pursue it. Do you like gardening? Playing games? Music? Theatre? Art? Grandma Moses started painting at age 76, when her arthritis made it too difficult for her to continue embroidering. Maybe you prefer community service or politics. In 2012, 94-year-old Ryokichi Kawashima launched a political career as an independent candidate for Japan’s lower parliamentary house, funding his campaign with money he had set aside for his funeral. You are never too old to explore your current passions or develop new ones.
Mentoring. In the past, older adults were revered and valued for their wisdom and experience (and still are in some cultures). While the times have changed, the younger generations need, and can benefit from, your vast knowledge, experience, and wisdom. You can teach a class, tutor, or mentor someone one-on-one.

Age in itself is rarely a barrier to anything. Of course, if you have a medical condition that prevents you from participating in certain activities, you should make healthy choices, but this would be true regardless of your age. For certain, not a single older adult needs to apologize for being alive or wanting to live fully and learn new things.

You don’t live less because you age, but you do live only once. Our society and culture should encourage older adults to live life to the fullest, and we should accept, enjoy, and benefit from their contributions—not pressure them to stop living merely because they have not yet died.

“Life is as interesting as you make it,” says Dorothy, Sophia’s daughter on The Golden Girls. She’s right. Don’t let our culture and the negative messages it sends keep you from making your life as amazing and fun as you can make it!


Beckie J. Pettis is a Washington attorney with the firm Phelan Webber Pettis P.S. The firm focuses on estate planning, with a special focus on planning for the 2nd half of life. The firm also assists with trust administration, Washington probate, guardianship, special needs planning, and Medicaid planning.

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