In many places, older adults are respected, even revered. The Japanese, for example, regard their elders as “national treasures” and even have a word—shibui—for the beauty of age. And in societies where elders are valued, “You look old today” is actually a compliment. But where youth is the yardstick and age is mistakenly equated with devastating decline, we learn to dread getting old, which creates a great deal of unnecessary suffering.
One reason for the misunderstanding of age as a problem is that the earliest studies of late life took place in hospitals with elders who were sick, which led to an overemphasis on the losses of late life. That “misery perspective” colored our collective view of aging for decades. But more recent research has established that aging is not an inevitable slide into misery and that the things we most fear about being old are the exception, not the rule. Most people over 65, for example, do not suffer from severe dementia or debilitating frailty. In fact, most of the losses that were once considered inevitable in later life are the result of inactivity and illness–not years–and can be prevented, delayed, or offset by not smoking, by regular exercise, and other health-friendly practices.
Best of all, we now know that age brings us many gifts; here are just a few examples: Older people are generally happier than younger ones. Starting in midlife, we become more comfortable with who we are – imperfections and all – and in turn, grow more tolerant of others. Aging has a “mellowing effect” on the brain, making us less reactive and better able to manage our emotions and express them nonharming ways (emotional mastery).
Many older people also report a deepening sense of belonging to something greater than themselves (gero-transcendence) and an increasing willingness to “let go and let be,” rather than needing to have things go their way. And the spontaneous return of long-forgotten memories urges us to review our life – to find the threads of meaning and cohesiveness that have run through it and to accept ourselves and the life we have lived as “good enough.”
In the late autumn of his life, William Butler Yeats experienced a joyful epiphany: “My body of a sudden blazed/And twenty minutes more or less/It seemed so great my happiness/That I was blessed and could bless.” To reflect on our years and recognize that we are blessed is one of the sweetest gifts of age. And it is intertwined with a second: to know that we are capable of blessing others. In fact, that is our task and our privilege. The traditional role of the elder is to bless the young, and age gives us the tools we need to do that – self-acceptance, tolerance of others’ foibles, contentment, emotional mastery, a deep sense of connection and belonging, and long years in the school of wisdom, which is human life.