What are we teaching our children about aging?

Aging is something we learn from family, our community and our culture.

Sam, I’ll call him, is what can only be described as an 87-year-old curmudgeon. As a widower suffering from congestive heart failure, mostly homebound due to his fatigue and need for oxygen, he is bitter about his lot in life.

Sam’s son and daughter bear his wrath as he rails about the unfairness of getting older and how his life is not worth living. His children focus their energies on managing his illness. Any efforts on their part to add value to Sam’s life via grandchild visits or trips out to eat are met with indifference.

Sam may not know it, but he is teaching his family (children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren), as well as his remaining friends and neighbors, what aging is like.

Without experiencing other seniors who are aging differently, his circle of family and friends have a very negative view of getting old.

Irene, on the other hand, is a bright, energetic, fit 80-year-old who fills her time with travel, visits with children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, participates in a book club and a Bible study group, and lunches with family and friends.

When she lost her husband two years ago, she joined a grief support group until she felt stronger and then began her reentry into a new stage of life.

Irene is resilient and continues to focus on the well-being of her mind, body and spirit. Her daughters, grandchildren, friends and neighbors see an experience of aging very different from those in Sam’s circle.

Our community has practices that teach us about aging, too.

For example, do neighbors react to a proposed new assisted living facility by citing fear of sleepless nights due to wailing ambulance sirens, or do we embrace the intergenerational nature of integrating seniors living in a facility with local college campus classes?

Do we poke fun at the age of a City Council member, or do we celebrate the life of the oldest citizens in our community while they are still among us?

Cultures also have aging rites and rituals. I grew up with a heritage of Italian descent. Let me tell you that Italian grandmas are revered for their cooking, their love of family and family dinners, and for their passionate and expressive character.

When I was a child, I knew of no reason why I wouldn’t want to grow up to become like my Nonna.

“Age stereotypes are often internalized at a young age, long before they are even relevant to people,” notes psychologist Becca Levy, assistant professor of public health at Yale University. She adds, “Even by the age of 4, children are familiar with age stereotypes, which are reinforced over their lifetimes.”

Aging is a family affair, a community movement and a cultural phenomenon. Here are two not-uncommon reactions associated with aging that we need to eliminate.

The first is the embarrassment of a dementia diagnosis. We must remove the attitude that there is something a person did wrong that caused them to develop dementia.

This shame prevents so many positive interventions from happening— and sets a course for care management that focuses on concealing the symptoms from others.

The other is keeping silent if you are a working family caregiver of an aging loved one.

At our recent Caregiver Recognition Day, attended by over 200 caregivers, a full one-third of attendees said they had to quit their jobs or reduce their work hours due to their caregiving responsibilities.

If we don’t speak up as employees, our employers will not be willing to find accommodations to support us.

Silence will only make the problem with employment worse as more and more people are caring for aging loved ones.

What messages are you communicating about aging?

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Andrea GallagherAndrea Gallagher

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