New Views of Aging
Exploration of the stages of life after age 50 has not been an area of research in medicine, psychology, sociology or much of anywhere. Up until this time all people over 50 have pretty much been lumped into one stage: decline to death. The good news is that this is rapidly changing. We have a population of over 111 million people in the United States who are sixty and over. And this population is not aging like any other previous generation. We are demanding a new view of aging.
New Stages in the Second Half of Life
Michael Gurian introduces a new conceptualization of aging after 50. His three stages are: the Age of Transformation (late forties to around sixty; the Age of Distinction (from sixty to seventy-five); and the Age of Completion (the final stage). This is a refreshing view. The Wonder of Aging: A New Approach to Embracing Life After Fifty, (2013) Michael Gurian
The Old (Outdated) Models of Aging
Up until this time, in our Western society we have had four models of aging3: the sociomedical, productive, consumer, and spiritual (Leder, 1997). Each one focuses on a singular aspect of the aging process. Let’s analyze each model in alignment with its contribution as either energized aging or anti-aging by asking this question: Does the model lead to a positive process for aging that includes a plan for contributing to multiple aspects of thriving as we age or does it tend to simplify the aging process and a time period to just ‘get through’ with distractions?
The Sociomedical Model
The first model, the Sociomedical Model, looks at this time period with a focus solely on addressing social and medical problems related to aging, such as cardiovascular and cognitive decline. It implies medical problems are all we will have time for. Visits to a variety of doctors who will require never ending tests paint the picture. This model presents a decidedly anti-aging perspective with diminishing physical and mental capabilities. This is an inaccurate and detrimental picture. Not only are we living longer; we are living healthier lives. Health is indeed a key driver in maintaining quality of life, however health has more to do with choices we make each day in how we live our lives rather than how many visits we make to doctors. So what is missing in this model?
The model does not address wellness and prevention. Sixty percent of aging well is due to social, behavioral, and environmental factors. These are areas where if we make good choices we can impact our aging. Only twenty percent of aging is due to medical issues and another twenty percent is due to genetics.1 In order to thrive in the twenty-five plus years we have in our extended middle age we need to create a new model that includes our physical, mental, emotional, economic, social, and spiritual needs.
1Disrupting Aging, Jo Ann Jenkins, p.77
The Productive Model
The second model is opposite of the Sociomedical Model. The Productive Model says we should not focus on dysfunction, but be busy and engaged – actually so busy that we ignore the realities of our life. We will just keep on going until the batteries run out. This viewpoint is overly simplistic. Aging does bring challenges and the idea that if we totally ignore the Sociomedical Model and embrace busy-ness, medical problems will just not have time to intrude in our lives. Filling every moment with activities does not leave us with time to be thoughtful and intentional about how we want to embrace aging and the choices we can make to thrive. This model, too, views aging in a negative view.
The Consumer Model
The Consumer Model, number three on the list is self-descriptive. Let’s just spend our way to happiness and contentment in our old age. Let’s move to that active retirement village in the sun, buy the patio home with all new appliances and a pool, play golf daily, take bus trips to museums and plays, and spend, spend, spend. We can create our own segregated environment and be invisible to those 50 and under. Again, another model that presents aging as a time to be swept under the rug. Move to Arizona or Florida and don’t bother society. It does not take into consideration our need for finding purpose and meaning nor the fact that the people who live in intergenerational settings all live healthier and more productive lives.
The Spiritual Model
And, finally, we have the Spiritual Model of aging which states our retirement years are a time for spiritual awakening. At first glance, this model is hard to criticize. We do finally have more time to think about our connection to our Higher Power, however we define that. Many of us find ourselves yearning for the connection of a spiritual community. Our faith communities provide opportunities for engagement. These are all important aspects of staying connected and contributing. However, this model too, has a singular focus. Spending 100% of our time immersed in activities of a spiritual or religious nature appeals to a few dedicated people. Most of us want a variety of activities in our lives.
The chart, Models of Aging, provides a succinct analysis of the four models. It is easy to see why none of these models alone represent the aging process in its entirety. There are many areas in our lives that deserve our attention including artistic, fitness and wellness, relationship building, financial, travel and leisure, and more. Each of us can list the areas that we want to focus on. This is where the fifth model, The Silver Gap Plan, comes in. It focuses on a holistic approach to aging and provides a step-by-step process for designing an energized aging plan.
Chart: Models of Aging
|1. Sociomedical||Focuses on aging from a declining perspective
Medical issues – both physical and psychological – from a reactive view
Social problems such as isolation resulting in depression
|2. Productive||Focuses on staying very busy
If we stay busy, we won’t notice we are aging
|3. Consumer||Focuses on spending time and money
If we move to an active retirement community and golf, play bocce, bingo, and bridge old age with elude us
|4. Spiritual||Focuses on turning our attention to connecting with our Higher Power
If we move from the secular world to the spiritual, our aging process will be better
|5. The Silver Gap Plan||Focuses on a holistic approach to aging
Provides for the thoughtful and intentional design of our lives based on what is meaningful and important
Utilizes the wisdom gained from years of experiences and expertise
While these four models present ways to approach aging, they are supported by outdated thinking. They represent institutional ageism and they erect barriers to our full participation in life. I suggest a very different course of action. We need to think about and re-imagine our future. The Silver Gap Year provides a blueprint for the thoughtful and intentional design of our extended middle age. It integrates Gurian’s new stages as we re-create aging on our own terms. “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” R. Buckminster Fuller.
Take the Time – Do Your Inner Work
The Silver Gap Year model includes reflective time to determine how we choose to live. We need to both understand the changes we are going through physically, emotionally, cognitively, psychologically, and spiritually and to embrace opportunities for growth. Life so far has been busy. We need to allow time to process the feelings, questions, and explorations needed for a healthy transition. We need to explore options, take advantage of opportunities, and create a new vision of life.
I highly recommend you read The Wonder of Aging: A New Approach to Embracing Life After Fifty, Michael Gurian.