As we research articles for the AgingOptions Blog, we see a growing number of stories in national publications challenging the way Americans think about aging. It seems there’s a rising chorus of geriatricians, psychologists and sociologists telling us that, as a society, we’re overdue for a complete reassessment about what “growing old” actually means. For the most recent expression of this theme, we offer this provocative article from the Washington Post in which Stanford psychologist Laura Carstensen casts a critical eye on our conventional thinking.
The Way We Think About Aging: We’re Living Decades Longer Than a Century Ago
Carstensen knows what she’s talking about: not only is she a Stanford professor of psychology but she is also director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. She observes that, during the 20th century, average U.S. life expectancy increased by an astonishing 30 years – but instead of imagining “the scores of ways we could use these years to improve quality of life, we tacked them all on at the end. Only old age got longer.” As a result of our short-sightedness, “It’s time to get serious about a major redesign of life.”
In Professor Carstensen’s assessment, one of the symptoms of our limited view of greater longevity is the anxiety most people express about the prospect of living for a century. “Asked about aspirations for living to 100,” says the Washington Post essay, “typical responses are ‘I hope I don’t outlive my money’ or ‘I hope I don’t get dementia.’” Carstens implies that, instead of looking into the future with dread, we need to change our outlook. “If we do not begin to envision what satisfying, engaged and meaningful century-long lives can look like, we will certainly fail to build worlds that can take us there.”
The Way We Think About Aging: American Culture Hasn’t Kept Up with Longevity
According to Carstens, our anxiety about aging is largely due to the rapid rate at which life expectancy has increased over the past 100 years. As medical knowledge grew and standards of health and hygiene improved, American life became healthier, and as a result “[the risk of] premature death was dramatically reduced in a matter of decades.” The problem, she asserts, is that our longevity surged, but American culture didn’t keep up. “Long lives are not the problem. The problem is living in cultures designed for lives half as long as the ones we have.”
For example, we still live in a society in which formal education ends for most people in their early 20s, a pattern which may have made sense two or three generations ago but is no longer well-suited to working lives that can last 50 years. The old model of adult children caring for aging parents doesn’t work so well in an era when people are delaying having children and grandparents are living longer lives in families that can now include four or five generations. But perhaps the biggest single challenge that is prompting a reexamination of aging is the fact that “retirement,” which once was expected to last a decade or so, can now stretch out for thirty or even forty years. That represents a drastic change for which we as a society are woefully unprepared, says the Post article.
As the article reports, the Stanford Center on Longevity has recently launched an initiative called The New Map of Life. Professor Carstensen says that, to get this effort started, the Center brought a multidisciplinary group of experts together and “charged them with envisioning what vibrant century-long lives would look like.” The questions with which the group wrestled sound very much like the kind of issues we deal with at AgingOptions in our LifePlanning Process: these men and women were asking how “traditional models of education, work, lifestyles, social relationships, financial planning, health care,” and intergenerational relations must be transformed if we’re going to be able to live lives that are longer and more vibrant. That sounds to us like a worthwhile and overdue approach.
The Way We Think About Aging – and All Stages of Life
In bringing these experts together, writes Carstensen, “We agreed that longevity demands rethinking of all stages of life, not just old age.” For example, that means profound changes in how we view education and how long children and young people stay in school. “Work, too, must change,” she says, with “more zigzagging in and out of the labor force” and definitely “more participation by workers over 60.” The Post article advocates a “major rethinking” in how we manage our resources to finance our longer lives, with (among other ideas) a different approach to sharing resources across generations. And, of course, living longer implies living well. “Maintaining physical fitness from the beginning to end of life will be paramount. Getting children outside, encouraging sports, reducing the time we sit, and spending more time walking and moving will greatly improve individual lives.”
We’re going to keep an eye out for future reports from the Stanford Center on Longevity as they continue this five-year study. The plan, Carstensen says, “is to develop specific recommendations for governments, employers, businesses, parents and policymakers so that we can begin to lay the groundwork for cultures that support century-long lives.” Perhaps because of the influence of people like Stanford’s Dr. Carstensen and others, we may be on the verge of a new approach to growing old.
The Way We Think About Aging Colors How We Approach Retirement
Here at AgingOptions, we’ve advocated a new approach to retirement planning for nearly 20 years, because, as we’ve seen repeatedly, the old models simply don’t work. Too often people try to plan for retirement in a piecemeal way, with all the components disconnected. That’s a recipe for retirement disaster. Instead, doesn’t it make sense to adopt a strategy in which the pieces fit together seamlessly? That’s the difference with an AgingOptions LifePlan: your financial plan, your legal strategy, your housing desires, your medical protection, and your family relationships actually reinforce each other. The result is true retirement security and peace of mind.
We would like to invite you to find out more about this fresh approach to retirement planning by joining Rajiv Nagaich at an AgingOptions LifePlanning Seminar, a free, information-packed session that we assure you will change many of your preconceptions about retirement. We offer these popular seminars in locations throughout the Puget Sound region, and we would love to welcome you, your spouse, and any adult guests you’d like to invite. You’ll find a calendar of upcoming seminars here on our Live Events page – then once you’ve selected the one that works for you, either register quickly and easily online or give us a call.
If it’s time to re-think aging, then it’s definitely time to re-think retirement, and that’s what we’re here to help you do. We’ll see you soon. Age on!
(originally reported at www.washingtonpost.com)