“There’s a long life ahead of you, and it’s going to be beautiful, as long as you keep loving and hugging each other.” ~ Yoko Ono
Between 1900 and 2000, average life expectancy increased by nearly 30 years in the United States and most other developed countries of the world. For the first time in history, most people now being born can expect to live seven, eight, nine, or more decades. This changes not only the trajectory of individual lives but also the shape of societies: Adults 60 and older are now the fastest-growing segment of our population.
This increase in longevity gives rise to new important questions:
- What do we want to do with an extra 30 years?
- How should we, as individuals and as a society, shape the direction and purpose of our longer lives?
- Can we design a path to our future that improves the well-being and opportunities of people at all ages?
- Should we be creating new social and business policies that will foster these opportunities?
- How do we prepare young people for longer lives—and can these questions be answered in ways that would be beneficial for all generations?
- How do those of us in Senior Housing reimagine a purposeful lifestyle for generous and compassionate elders who choose to live in our communities?
Unfortunately, rather than awakening a sense of celebration or innovation, the news of our longer life spans is generating fear and apprehension among individuals and concern among policymakers.
The questions posed most frequently are not the ones mentioned above, but rather these:
- Can we afford all these old people?
- Will they bankrupt our society or ransom the future of our children and grandchildren?
We have added 30 years to our lives, not just for the lucky few but for the majority of people in the developed world. The truth is that we have created a new stage of life but have not yet envisioned its purpose, meaning, and opportunities.
What does this new stage of life mean?
- Psychologists Erik and Joan Erikson viewed later life as a time when the impulse to give back to society becomes an urgent need.
- Carl Jung, an early psychologist with interest in the challenges of the second half of life, saw older age as a fertile period of spiritual growth and individuation.
- Betty Friedan, a social psychologist, researched aging late in her life and suggested that there is a “fountain of age,” a period of renewal, growth, and experimentation based on a new freedom.
Dr. Bill Thomas, a geriatrician, is at the forefront of a strong nationwide movement to reframe life after adulthood, which is Elderhood, as an exciting stage of human growth and development. In his book Second Wind, he explores the dreams and disappointments, the struggles and triumphs of a generation of 78 million people who once said they would never grow old and never trust anyone over thirty.
Having created a new stage of life, Elderhood; the next step is to make these extra 30 years meaningful! For some of us it may be:
- Choosing a healthy lifestyle so that the extra 30 years of life can be vibrant.
- Volunteering or working in jobs to make the world a better place; creating a legacy through service, mentoring and activism to benefit future generations.
- Embracing new paradigms for aging to realize our potential. Reinventing our life, and doing something we have always dreamed about but never had the opportunity to do
- Assuming the Elder teaching role as the conduit to connect the generations to restore the broken connections in our culture. Even the frailest elder has something to teach us, if we, as students, recognize the elder wisdom as an opportunity to actualize their purpose and legacy.
For those of us who work in the senior living industry, the typical “bible, bingo, and birthday party activity program” is not the answer. Erik and Joan Erikson viewed later life as a time when the impulse to give back to society becomes a URGENT NEED!
The truth is, we don’t yet know what Elderhood, this new stage of life, can be, but the first step is to change the lens through which we view aging and challenge our stereotypical assumptions.
No matter what our age or frailty or ability, we are always fully capable human beings. Until our last breath, we are evolving, and are in a period of renewal, growth, and experimentation. See Dr. Bill Thomas in this short video introducing his TedX talk, Elderhood Rising – the dawn of a new world age
About the Author: Jean Garboden is the Director of Education and Innovation at Compass Senior Living, located in Eugene Oregon. Jean is an Elder Advocate and Eden Alternative Educator with over 30 years’ experience in not-for-profit and for-profit health care organizations. She is honored to lead the mission and values culture development for Compass Senior Living. Jean lives in Las Vegas, Nevada where she enjoys the weather and volunteers with the Nevadans for the Common Good, advocating for caregivers and elders in southern Nevada