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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Old: The New Normal

Since first appearing on the Washington Post’s website last week, the article “We’re lucky if we get to be old, physician and professor believes”* has been among the top five most-read pieces on the paper’s website (and this as a major blizzard was making its way east). 

Written by Tara Bahrampour, the piece profiles Bill Thomas, a 56-year-old “geriatrician and theater performer who is traveling the country trying to change people’s attitudes about aging.”

Given how many 50+ year olds there are out there, including among the Washington Post’s readers, is it any wonder the article is so popular? Especially as it details the quixotic nature of Thomas’ passionate endeavor to make old age, especially in this culture,  “as rewarding as youth."

But it was the title of the piece, the first part, that got my attention. Because, duh, if death is the alternative, of course we are lucky to be old. Or as I commented months ago on a friend’s Facebook post—she’d just turned 50 and asked how she got to be so old: “Pure luck.”

But Thomas is looking beyond the obvious reason that old age is good—we’re still alive—to what’s to be positively valued and celebrated in this “third phase of life…when age and experience are associated with enrichment rather than decrepitude.”

Now Thomas is a Boomer, and so is expected to have a personal stake in how we think about old age. But there is even a more personal reason that underpins his thinking:

Living with [his two daughters’] devastating illness influenced his understanding of aging. “The grievous lesson was that even though I believed in medicine, there’s no magic path of flowers and unicorns,” he recently told a roomful of alumni at UMBC’s Erickson School. “So you have to acknowledge that two of your children will never speak your name, touch your face, call for you. What I’ve learned from that is you settle into a new normal. . . . Yes, you grieve the loss of the old normal, but there’s always going to be a new normal.”’

Aging, with its constant barrage of new infirmities, requires similar adjustments, he says. If people could understand it this way, perhaps they could change their attitudes about growing old.

So to age is to enter into a new normal, one we are not to judge as negative—any more than we would judge being young as (inherently) negative. They are each simply stops along the way:

Old and young are two distinct times of life, neither one better or worse than the other. He talks about the different ways brains process information and foster creativity at different times of life (the young are more literal and mathematical; the old are better at improvisation and making associations).

Where Thomas’ message falls short, alas, is that it is not prescriptive, but descriptive. He describes the current state of affairs—our negative attitudes towards aging—and tells us we should change them. But he does not tell us how.

One woman came up to him after a show and said, “I was expecting you to tell me what to do.”

 “Telling her what to do is not the answer — the answer is to raise consciousness,” he says. “If people can see this in a new way, they will find their own specific solutions.”

Well, that’s all well and good, raising consciousness (been there, done that), but people need help in re-seeing their march into old age as something to be valued and not denigrated.

Any suggestions from my readers on how to do that?


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