INTRODUCTION: “HOW OLD DO YOU FEEL?”

How many times have you been asked, “How old are you?” Perhaps it would make more sense to ask, “How old do you feel?” It is common to place everyone over the age of 60 or 65 in that community called “senior citizens.” But why was the age of 60 or 65 chosen so arbitrarily as the age for retirement? Perhaps the initial intentions behind the decision to remove older people from active participation in the work force were good ones. Unfortunately, in many cases retirement is emotionally and physically disastrous.

Older people are capable of contributing to the community, so each one of us is affected very deeply by society’s edict that we remain idle and, hence, useless.

As more and more people live into their seventies and eighties and nineties with good health, sharp minds, and productive capacities, society will perhaps eventually recognize the talents of the elderly. Andres Segovia at the age of 88 and Vladimir Horowitz at the age of 80 were still enthralling musical audiences. The great British philosopher Bertrand Russell was mentally active and productive until his death at the age of 98. Comedian George Burns fills movie theaters at the age of 93. Charles de Gaulle and Golda Meir were politically active and respected until their deaths. At the age of 88, the loss of Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia had international repercussions. And nobody would have thought of retiring Albert Einstein at the age of 65, which would have been eleven years before his death. Ronald Reagan managed the U.S. presidency at age 77. Like these famous people, there are hundreds of thousands of elderly people who are productive and active in their own ways, and, indeed, who very much want to remain so. In fact, the prospect of twenty or thirty years of inactivity may not be as conducive to good health as some of us would like to think.

The Western world has become progressively more youth oriented. With the introduction of a mandatory retirement age and the attitudes fostered by consumerism, the older person has been placed in a nonessential role in society. The abolition of age-based mandatory retirement in the 1980s in the United States may have a beneficial impact on the future of many older Americans and how they are viewed by the rest of society.

The nuclear family has disintegrated, and many younger people have little experience or contact with their older parents or grandparents. If one has not related to an older individual on a personal and intimate basis, it is easy to consider all older people as uninteresting and nonproductive. Many members of the medical and nursing profession who have their major interaction with older people in hospitals, institutions, and clinics naturally associate aging with illness.

The relative slowing down that often accompanies aging is frustrating to many younger people. It interferes with the pressure “to get things done.” You have only to watch people waiting in line at a bank or a ticket office when an older person is trying to carry out a transaction. The slower pace often exasperates the clerk and the younger customers waiting their turn. Have you ever noticed the impatience of many bus drivers when senior citizens get on or off a bus at a pace that is too slow for the pressure of schedules? Traffic lights give little time for older people to cross a street safely. Experiences like this can make it difficult for the older person to feel wanted and needed by the community, and it is not surprising that, once removed from an active role in the world of commerce and work, you are expected to grow old gracefully, deteriorate physically and mentally, and then pass away quietly.

It may be difficult for older people to change the attitudes of society but the change in retirement legislation indicates that changes can occur which will allow seniors to continue to be active regardless of age. With determination and knowledge, you can let those responsible for your health care know that you no longer accept aging as a sufficient explanation for your medical complaints. By being an informed and enlightened consumer of health care, you can direct the medical profession to respond to your needs.

The first step is to rid yourself of some of the myths about the process of aging. If you believe the myths yourself, you will find it difficult to convince your physicians and other health personnel to discard them. I will try to give you the information that will allow you to be a well-informed recipient of health care, because a good part of the responsibility must be yours. The great tendency for older people to assign responsibility for their health to their physicians puts seniors in a passive role about something that is crucial for positive and productive later years. After you learn to assume the responsibility for your own health and learn to see your physician as an adviser and consultant, you will no doubt benefit both mentally and physically.

Most people assume that the inevitable process of growing old is naturally linked to illness, and this is an assumption that is shared by many members of the medical profession and other health care professionals. It is presumed that as the body gets older, it begins to fall apart and become plagued by illness. But there is no specific age at which health deteriorates or illness occurs. To have reached your senior years, you may have survived many illnesses, or if you were extremely fortunate, perhaps you have never been ill.

That you are still here is a reflection of your strength. Your age is far less important than your ability and desire to participate in life.

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