Louise Aronson Is Reprogramming Our Biases Against Old Age

Dr. Louise Aronson is at the forefront of a revolution to rattle the cages of our prejudices about aging. In her new book, Elderhood, she addresses all of the topics in her subtitle — Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, and Reimagining Life.

Louise was the lively guest speaker at our September GaGa Sisterhood meeting. She informed and entertained us with her knowledge and wit beginning with her intent in writing her book. She began by asking how many of us had ever heard the word elderhood. Of the 30 of us present, only 3 raised their hands. For the rest of us, it was a new term which once she explained, made perfect sense.

To clarify, she asked how many of us had heard of the word childhood and everyone laughed. Adulthood anyone, she asked? Again more laughter. Most of us will spend more time in elderhood than in childhood and yet there isn’t a word to describe this phase of our lives.

New term for this stage of life

She confessed that she started with a different word – oldhood to which everyone moaned. She laughed and said that was the reaction she got when she first used it in an article for the New York Times a few years ago. Universally, people didn’t like it and she got lots of letters from people saying “I’m 75 and perfectly fit and I don’t like being called old.” But the best letter she got was from a woman in New Jersey who said, “You’ve got a grammatical problem — because if you say “childhood,” you have “child” and if you say “adulthood,” you have an adult, but if you say “oldhood,” what is an “old?” It’s not a noun. You have to say “elderhood” and then you have an “elder.”

She liked the term because we do have these 3 main phases of life. Even though it’s just a word, if you don’t have the language for it, then it almost doesn’t exist. It’s why important things are named.

New phases happen all the time in history. Childhood, as a distinct and valued life phase, didn’t exist until fairly modern times when it was discovered by a French historian. Adolesence wasn’t coined until after the Industrial Revolution and when there were child labor laws.

What she learned in writing this book was that going back over time and across cultures old age was described as beginning between ages 60 and 70. That means that some of us will be old for 30, 40 or even 50 years!

Some people see that as a crisis but she sees it as an opportunity — for reprogramming our biases against old. She told us about visiting a professor at the University of California at Berkeley who started every semester by asking his first year medical students to write down the first words that came to mind when he used the word old in reference to a person. The words they wrote were: wrinkled, bent over, slow moving, bald, white hair, weak, and frail.

Then he asked them to make a list of words for elder and he got wise, respect, leader, experience, power, money and knowledge.

Cultural biases can be changed

Her point is that definitions or cultural biases can be changed by telling different stories about what old age is. You just can’t summarize it with one story. The professor also does this experiment with colleagues, friends of all ages inside and outside of medicine and the answers are the same. One of the big deals about old age is how we internalize prejudice. Most people aren’t prejudiced against themselves until they become old.

Where this becomes important is when we look at attitudes towards aging and old age which can influence health. Researchers found that people who have negative perceptions towards old age are more likely to have Alzheimer’s markers in their cerebral spinal fluid, get heart disease seven years earlier and recover less well from hospitalizations and surgeries.

Louise encouraged us to fight back about the common misperception that just because we’re older doesn’t mean we no longer have similar needs for human connection, physical activity, and purpose. One of the things that leads to the best old age is having a reason to get up. That could be volunteering, taking care of someone, learning to play a new instrument or going to work. People in their seventies are the fastest growing segment in today’s American workforce — some because they realize they’re going to have to support themselves for twenty years or more, but a lot of other people are working for meaning and purpose. People in their seventies are also one of the biggest segments of volunteers and of family labor.

She refered to a theory called the “grandmother hypothesis,” coined by an anthropologist in the 1980s. Women past childbearing age helped not just their children, but also their grandchildren by providing food and thus lengthened the human lifespan in the process.

Louise’s mantra is: Embrace elderhood! Instead of seeing elderhood as being a failed adult, which is currently how our society posits it — a less good adult — claim your status as an elder. Studies have shown that as we get older, we have greater life satisfaction, less anxiety and more happiness. Yet, we don’t tell that story or use that power to counteract the negative stereotypes.

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