On aging

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On aging“When I get older, losing my hair, many years from now…. Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty four?” Do you remember that Beatles song from 1967? We were 17 at the time and thought it was cute and romantic, if not a bit silly. Age 64 was very far away and definitely old! The thought that at 64 we would have lost our looks and be past our “best before date” in the eyes of the world did not concern us because getting older was only an abstraction.  Being “old” was inconceivable.

We all know from observation that we, like most biological organisms, are born, mature in our abilities, and then surely, if we are lucky enough, decline and die of old age or age related diseases. These days, according to The World Health Organization 2013, overall life expectancy for Canadians is 82.5. Many of us will live well beyond that age. My dear father just turned 90 and still very much enjoys life, learning, and relationships. Some might even say his easy sense of humour, patience, knowledge, and wisdom have actually continued to flourish since he was 60. The key to this happy life is not only that he has left behind the stresses of middle age and raising children, but also the fact that he remains physically healthy, curious, and engaged. Of course, also having the means to escape our harsh Canadian winters doesn’t hurt. He is pursuing his interests, and still exercises his many abilities.

Some of us embrace aging, while others protest loudly, fighting against aging every step of the way. Many of us are somewhere in the middle. There is a term called “aging gracefully”. It sounds appealing to me and something I shall contemplate like the idea of “grace under pressure” – both imply self-awareness and deliberate choice.

Not only do our motivations vary but so do our talents, our genetic predispositions, our personalities, our social contexts, and our financial resources. It is not only a mistake but also a violation of our human rights to think that all people are the same and to judge an individual by his or her age alone. That being said, negative social expectation and discrimination based on the perception of a person’s age can have an undermining impact on a person’s confidence, as well as on the opportunities presented to them in employment or life in general.

In employment there is some evidence that older workers may be the “first fired” when the economy or a particular company’s finances are in decline. Older workers may also find it more difficult to get rehired. Even if still employed, they may not be considered for certain jobs or promotions because of age related bias. There may be subtle and not so subtle pressure on them to step aside, to make room for the younger, supposedly more energetic, and, in today’s world, more tech-savvy competitors. As with anyone facing prejudice and discrimination, an individual is best off to try to offset the age related stereotypes by cultivating attitudes and behaviours that challenge those discriminatory practices and prejudices when they persist.  This includes one’s own self-perception and internalized limitations. When we think that we are “old” and “over the hill” we may decide to stop trying to respond to new demands. We may shy away from, rather than embrace, the positive opportunities life would offer to us. We may think others see us as too old instead of deciding to prove them, and perhaps ourselves, wrong. We become self-limiting.

Have you heard the popular retirement slogan, “Freedom 55”? The idea that at perhaps age 55 (or some other magical age between 55and 65) we will achieve liberation from the need for paid employment is very seductive for many, even if unrealistic. Not everyone loves their job. However, freedom not only implies freedom from, but also freedom to. It is very discouraging, as many have discovered, to be given “freedom” at age 50 or 60 when one does not have the resources to maintain one’s lifestyle, let alone start travelling the globe or taking on new hobbies. Facing the job market as an older worker is when age discrimination truly becomes frightening. Even if lifestyle is not an issue, the need for a sense of identity, belonging, and purpose, previously provided by paid employment, remains.

All this being said, my point is that whether or not you will remain employed for pay, by choice or necessity, past the age of 55 or 65 or 70, your quality of life will depend upon your being engaged in meaningful, purposeful, activities, that support stress management as well as good mental and physical health.

Would that we could discover these truths when we are young as the same applies to all of life! In the pursuit of these ideals, we need to discover when to experiment, when to change, and when to move forward. Along the way we need to take care of ourselves sufficiently so that we are capable of moving forward when the opportunity and timing are right for us.

If you are contemplating the next stage of your life and/or the challenges of aging in the workforce, your Employee and Family Assistance Program (EFAP) has many services to help. You can speak to a counsellor, participate in career counselling and learn more about planning for retirement with financial support services. Call 1 866 833-7690 or visit workhealthlife.com.

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