A few years ago, when the leading edge baby boomers were turning 65, I proposed to the big company that owned the website I worked for at the time, that we build a new site aimed at the boomer crowd. Basically, it was about how to stay fit, have fun, and "about making the choices that let us live healthy, happy lives without leaving the environmental check to our grandchildren."
I talked to many people about writing for it, people my age who were leading interesting lives and doing interesting stuff, and every single one of them responded with "Why would I ever want to read or write for a site like that?" It was like the old Groucho Marx joke about not wanting to belong to any club that would have him as a member — they didn't feel old, they didn't feel part of THAT group.
I was talking to people who were still working, cycling, traveling and doing interesting things, but in fact, this feeling is almost universal. There's a lot of research that suggests "adults tend to report feeling younger than their chronological age." A Michigan State study found that after age 40, almost everyone felt 20 percent younger than their actual age. This is actually a good thing; William Chopik, an assistant professor of psychology who studied the responses of half a million individuals about this subject, tells Bruce Horovitz of Kaiser Health News:
"People — particularly older people — usually say they feel younger than they are," said Chopik. "People who report feeling younger actually tend to live longer and healthier lives — and they don’t tend to have as much of a pattern of decline."
But the main reason people want to feel younger, according to Chopik's and other studies, is the fear of the stigma of being old. From Chopik's study, Age Differences in Age Perceptions and Developmental Transitions:
Why does a shift toward affiliating with youth happen more as people age? Insights from the age-group dissociation effect provide a potential explanation. In short, people try to psychologically dissociate themselves from stigmatized groups (i.e., older adults)....In sum, older adulthood is an identity that carries significant stigma, and individuals become increasingly closer to assuming this stigmatized identity as they age. When people become older adults, they could view themselves as becoming part of a group to which they have held negative attitudes toward their whole life.
Who are you calling old?
Author Horovitz is 66 but says he feels 56, and suggests that it might because of the dog walking, weight lifting and swimming he does every day. He goes on to describe the lives of others like him who put in hours of exercise, people cycling 10 miles a day, walking to work, exercising like mad.
But it isn't just healthy, active people who think they are younger and fitter than they are, and who fear the stigma; Adam Gopnik writes in The New Yorker about how even people who aren't healthy and fit aren't willing to accept that burden. He talks to Joseph Coughlin of the MIT Agelab (and author of "The Longevity Economy," reviewed on MNN here). Coughlin notes that "Old people will not buy anything that reminds them that they are old. They are a market that cannot be marketed to." Coughlin describes the market for those personal emergency response systems or PERS like I got for my mom, a pendant she wore around her neck that she could press if she fell.
"The problem is that no one wants one," Coughlin says. "The entire penetration in the U.S. of the sixty-five-plus market is less than four per-cent. And a German study showed that, when subscribers fell and remained on the floor for longer than five minutes, they failed to use their devices to summon help eighty-three per cent of the time." In other words, many older people would sooner thrash on the floor in distress than press a button — one that may summon assistance but whose real impact is to admit, I am old.
Upgrades are worth it
But people and technology are changing. I'm rather fond of all my technical upgrades; my Apple Watch is a workable PERS, although it gets set off by lots of things other than falling down. Health monitors are built into my Starkey Livio AI "healthables" aka hearing aides, along with a fall detector. The new lens in my left eyeball was like getting the windows washed. A year's worth of physiotherapy at The Runner's Academy changed the way I run and I'm back to doing a 5-kilometer run every morning. I wasn't cycling as far, as fast, or as much as I used to, so I just bought an electric bike.
Of course, not everyone can do all of this. In my case, all of this stuff is expensive, except for the cataract surgery that was covered by health insurance, but almost everyone can get out there and walk a bit, even cycle a bit. The point is to not give in to this ridiculous stigma.
I feel my age. I get passed when I run or bike, and I'm just going to get slower as time goes on. But when I think of where I was 20 years ago, not doing any exercise, smoking, a nervous wreck working 18 hours a day and in the process of losing the company I founded, I realize that for me, times have never been better.
I don't look in the mirror and see 46 or 56, I see 66 now, and actually, I like what I see. No stigma here.