Select Page

Image by Ellis Garvey on Unsplash.

“As long as you are alive, there will be new options for improving your well-being, happiness, and sense of purpose. But if you buy into the stereotypes and myths, you’ll be at the mercy of the nay-sayers, including at times your health care providers.” – That’s a quote from a fairly new book, Honest Aging, by Rosanne Leipzig, a respected geriatrician.

The second part of this statement is true. Let’s start there.

We hear people saying things like, “What do you expect as you get older.” Or “What surprised me about turning 70.” Invariably, they’ve internalized a stereotype.

I once had a neighbor- a retired nurse, no less – who used to say, “Everybody over 60 has back pain.”

That’s patently false. Lots of people over 60 – even over 70 or 80 – have no back pain. If your back hurts, it’s because you have some condition that caused your back to move in ways that led to pain. Or you used your body in a way that led to pain. It’s not because you’re older.                                                                                  m/k

Even worse, people start to believe the stereotypes. They feel tired after exercise. They say, “It’s expected at my age.” So they don’t consider options like hiring a personal trainer, joining a class at a gym, or consulting a doctor (who, to be honest, is likely to say, “It’s normal at your age.”).

They don’t say, “It’s normal to be tired when you’re starting a new exercise program, at any age.”

The best demonstration of the power of internalized stereotypes comes from the studies of Ellen Langer, a Harvard University professor. You can read about them in a New York Times article, What If Age Is Nothing But A Mindset.

Professor Langer invited a small group of men to a converted monastery, where their environment was designed to remove all cues associated with aging. After just two weeks, these men made not just mental but physical gains in everything from gait to eyesight.

The BBC replicated this study less formally, with a mixed-sex group of well-known people. One 80-year-old woman arrived limping with two canes. The rules were, “Carry your own luggage, even if you have to move one shirt at a time.” The BBC folks behind the cameras had to bite their tongues as the woman struggled. But two weeks later, she emerged walking strongly with just one cane. Like Ellen Langer, they found people responded to their environment.

That’s what mindset is about. It’s refusing to acknowledge your limitations because someone told you, “This is normal for old people.” It’s being realistic. It’s asking questions.

When a doctor told me that I was at risk for something because of age, I challenged her. Why was age a risk factor? Was it because most older people had comorbidities? Was it because of cell changes, such as shortened telomeres? When she didn’t have an answer, I politely told her I wasn’t buying into her risk assessment.

A lot of snooty academics (I used to be an academic myself) will disparage Ellen Langer’s studies because – as she acknowledges – they’re not true experiments. True. But they raise questions that deserve to be explored further…but probably won’t, because it’s not in the interest of Big Pharma to find substitutes for drugs. Big Pharma subsidizes a lot of research (and spends more on marketing than research, but that’s another story).

However, back to the beginning of this article. The first part of Leipzig’s statement is not accurate. What she said was, “”As long as you are alive, there will be new options for improving your well-being, happiness, and sense of purpose.”

If you’re alive, you may be in a miserable condition that can’t be cured or fixed. The condition may make your life miserable. There may be no cure or the cure may be worse than the disease.

What Makes Olga Run tells the story of a 90-year-old woman who’d been competing in senior-level track and field since she was 77.  Bruce Grierson wrote this book seeking answers to the question “Why is this woman functioning at a high level when others in her age group are barely functioning if they’re alive?”

Grierson’s grandmother was at the other extreme. At one point, Grierson’s sister asks their grandmother, “What does it feel like to be 100?”  She replies, “I hope you never find out.”

The woman’s mind was “sharp as Cheddar,” but she was “essentially body-locked…like a transcendently beautiful butterfly pinned to a board. She died — was released, really — just shy of 102.”

In her book Never Say Die, Susan Jacoby writes about an elderly man who was unable to live alone anymore. One day he stole the caretaker’s keys, drove to a bridge, and jumped. He couldn’t face a future of living with lots of restrictions and no privacy.

Even more publicly, Australian scientist David Goodall turned 104 in May of 2018. When asked if he’d had a nice birthday, he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, “No, I’m not happy. I want to die…It’s not sad, really. What is sad is if one is prevented.”  When interviewed, he was off to Switzerland for legally assisted dying.

These examples show older people who have a realistic mindset. They’re not internalizing stereotypes. They respond positively in their own way. I am getting very tired of reports promising that people who have a “positive attitude” to aging are likely to live longer. They also enjoy better health. They stay strong and live longer.

Do these people have a mindset problem? Could any amount of therapy help them adjust to their situation, let alone find a reason to be optimistic?

We need to remember that during World War II, spies were given cyanide pills to avoid being captured and tortured. Would anyone say they had a negative attitude?

It’s time to replace the notion of “positive attitude” with “realistic expectations” that go in both directions.

Most people can do more with what they have. That’s the belief associated with a positive mindset.

But sometimes there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. That can be an accurate belief. No amount of therapy will make a difference.

In their own way, these folks are just as positive. They aren’t accepting stereotypes like, “Anyone can do this,” or, “It’s never too late.”

In the end, embracing reality and ignoring stereotypes will lead to better experiences.