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The value of age: ‘l am still me with wisdom gained. My goal is to stay curious’



The value of age: ‘l am still me with wisdom gained. My goal is to stay curious’

In a world that has consistently devalued ageing, the World Health Organisation has said that there is no “typical” older person. And yet, society continually makes assumptions as to what ageing involves, creating a barrier to the opportunities, support and rights of older adults.

Part of a series on ageing, involving people’s stories and expert views.

Research conducted as part of the most recent Global Report on Ageism highlights that children as young as four internalise these stereotypes. Factors determining ageism include age, gender, education, occupation, personality, knowledge and a lack of intergenerational contact.

Ageism is now recognised as one of the most widespread prejudices around the world. The 2022 report from Age Action, Reframing Ageing: The state of ageing in Ireland, specifies that “society needs to rethink ageing”, taking it outside of the presumed and wrong narratives that growing older has long been associated with.

There are one million people aged 60 and older in the State today, including more than 180,000 people aged 80 or older. Ageing in a conscious way and exploring life in a new decade should not be hindered by the stereotypical consideration that older age is limiting. “The good news is that most of us will make it to 60, and we can look forward to an average of nearly 25 years of life as ‘older persons’,” says Nat O’Connor, senior public affairs and policy specialist at Age Action. “With so many people living into older age, there is no one experience that captures the diversity of growing old in Ireland today.”

Mary (73)

For 73-year-old Mary, growing older has been a gradual occurrence – in many ways, a new way of being. “Growing older has many freedoms that take time to adjust to,” she says. “A less busy life, less responsibilities, and more solitude. A body with different needs that works at a slower pace, tiring more, but still healthy.”

Mary feels she is ageing “intentionally” as she embraces life with as much enthusiasm as she has always had and enjoys meeting the new challenges this decade brings her. “l keep my mind and heart open to adventures and accept that my life today is still great but different,” she says. “The balance is knowing my limitations and still staying content. The challenge is to face and get acceptance around my ageing body. It’s slower and not as flexible, but that’s okay.

“It has served me well. l have given birth to five amazing humans, felt great sorrow and disappointments, but have also experienced great joy and happiness. l am still me with wisdom gained. My goal is to stay as healthy as possible, stay curious, and do the best l can each day and stay open to change.”

How a person ages depends on an individual’s circumstances, including diet, exercise and social connections. Taking the appropriate action to maintain a healthy life will support a person through their years. The same can be said for recognising, appreciating and honouring a person’s worth, confidence and experience outside of judgment and age-based stereotypes. “It is important to challenge ageist stereotypes, including ideas that we may have internalised about growing old,” says O’Connor. “Ageism refers to the harm done through how we think (stereotypes), how we feel (prejudice) and how we act (discrimination) towards someone based on age.”

O’Connor specifies that ageism can be conscious or unconscious. This bias can be implicit or explicit. It can be casual or systemic and can affect women to a greater extent. Arguably, notwithstanding death, everyone may experience a stigmatised and biased narrative as they age. To end age bias we must address it.

Nat O’Connor of Age Action.

Everyone is entitled to have their basic human rights respected, protected and fulfilled – regardless of their age. However, ageism often becomes internalised and presents as self-doubt in older adults. “Self-directed ageism is where we think or behave stereotypically about ourselves, such as imagining that we shouldn’t do certain things or go certain places because of our age,” explains O’Connor. “Self-directed ageism can have a serious effect on someone’s health, whereas those who avoid such ageism have been shown to heal quicker and are less likely to experience depression and other mental health problems.”

“No one expects too much from you,” says Mary, which highlights the reality older adults experience in being exposed to frequent negative assumptions about their worth, level of understanding or capacity to be involved.

While Mary recognises this, she also enjoys reworking the narrative and “surprising people a bit”.

O’Connor suggests that maintaining social connections is important at all ages, and older people should be encouraged and facilitated to meet with friends and family, and to keep in contact with them. “The important thing to remember is that many of the views on ageing that we think we know are just prejudices and stereotypes we picked up in life or from the media,” he says. “Being an older person just means being yourself, with more life experience, and a body that needs a bit more care. We should all challenge ageism wherever it manifests.”

Mary appreciates quiet times, but relishes the moments with family and friends. “l have mostly been a glass half full kind of woman and that has helped shape me,” she says. “Wisdom gleaned over the years has taught me to live in the now and not to sweat the small stuff.”

“A life lived well is one where a person gets to be with people they care about and to do things that they enjoy and find meaningful,” says O’Connor. “Many older persons have a new lease of life when they no longer need to be in paid work or a full-time parent or carer. Older people benefit from experience, better stress management and stronger intrinsic motivation to do the things they find worthwhile. And many older persons decide to try new things or to meet new people, which can open up new opportunities and new relationships.”

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Reframing ageing and recognising the significant value, expertise, knowledge and experiences of the older cohorts of society cultivates a more valuable and diverse people, facilitating the legal protection and opportunities for all of us as we age.

“l am grateful for a life well lived and for my age now,” says Mary. “A few bumps and lumps in body and a slower pace of life but l am still here looking forward and hopeful. Someone once said, ‘it’s not the years in your life that matters, it’s the life in your years’.”

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