Dispelling the Myths of Aging

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Is it inevitable that you’ll lose health and vitality as you age? Not necessarily, says mind-body health expert Joan Borysenko. Here's her advice for finding value in your elder years.

Omega: How do you think about the various stages or phases of life? 

Joan: I look at the life cycle as having four seasons, and each season corresponds to a quadrant on the medicine wheel. The first season, spring (ages 0-21), includes our formative years and they correspond to the East on the medicine wheel. The summer years (ages 22-42), are the time of career and motherhood, whether you’re mothering children or ideas. This is South on the wheel. The fall season, which I call the guardian years (ages 43-64), is a time of shift. For women it’s when menopause happens. It’s a Western facing time of life when we begin to get more concerned with changing the world. 

Then there are the elder wisdom years (ages 64 and up). These are the years that were venerated in indigenous cultures and older cultures because women and men had the wisdom of a lifetime and were wonderful counsel. They had enough perspective to look back on the circle of life, at what had happened in their family, in their tribe, and offer wisdom. You naturally develop a more holistic view at this time of life, which can be valuable to share with those in other life stages.

Omega: Do you find elders have this respect in our culture?

Joan: Unfortunately, in our culture, elders aren’t so venerated. This is a culture of youth. Really, one of the last frontiers of stereotypic judgment is aging. People walk right past people who are older. They think older people are using up all their health-care dollars or they have other myths about older people. 

But nationally, because of demographics, there are more elders than ever before. I recently participated in the filming of the PBS special Ageless Living, and one of the speakers, Ashton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks, cited some very interesting statistics, including that only 2.75% of elders are in a nursing home. That’s really a minuscule number. We all think we’re going to be sick and helpless as we age, but, generally speaking, that’s not the story.

Omega: How are you helping to dispel some of the myths of aging?

Joan: I’ve been studying the mind-body connection for more than 50 years. A number of studies show that people who view aging in a positive way live longer and healthier lives by far than people who have negative stereotypes of aging. When you have a negative stereotype of aging, you lose a tremendous amount of vitality. So I want to help people find the strengths they’ve developed through the life cycle and then focus on those.

One way we do this is through a guided meditation down the river of life. There's a spiritual aspect of coming from the mystery before we were born, and returning to the source at death. I also lead people through journaling exercises where they draw their river of life and look at some of the major things that happened in the 7-year cycles. We then harvest the wisdom from those times.

Omega: Do you find that men and women experience aging differently?

Joan: There's no doubt about that, though the distinctions aren’t hard and fast—it’s all a continuum and there’s some overlap. But, generally, we're conditioned as women in this culture to look young. There is then the stereotype of the silver-haired fox who is very sexy to younger women. But the same gray-haired, handsome woman is not so attractive, generally speaking, from the male point of view. So, there's a definite difference there. Women have more to overcome, so it's really something to be able to look in the mirror and find the beauty in yourself at every stage of life. 

One thing men and women have in common as we age is that we want to live with vitality. We want to stay in good physical shape. In so doing, we bring out a tremendous amount of inner beauty—there’s something that really shines through us, and the better we feel the more positive effect that has on our body.

Omega: What if you get to your later years and life hasn’t turned out like you thought it would. Maybe your spouse died, or you don’t have enough money to stop working, etc.?

Joan: We're seeing more and more of a struggle at both ends of life. No matter what the age and stage, there's disappointment inherent in it. There's a sense of loneliness, separation, and pressure that's pervasive in our society throughout the lifespan. Elders are not the only ones who say life is not, at this stage, what I thought it might be.

One of the difficulties is we don’t learn resilience or emotional intelligence as we grow up. To practice resilience you have to realize that everything you take as a given will change. It’s unlikely that you’re going to get everything that you want. This is a difficult idea. 

The difference between being young and old is that if you’re young you still have a lot of horizons open to you. If you’re old and you haven’t prepared well financially for your retirement, that’s a problem. What I hope will happen is that people will band together to look for solutions.

Omega: How important is community as we age?

Joan: Connection is the most important thing for our health, our well-being, and our happiness—at whatever stage of life we're in. When we’re depressed, we isolate, and that’s a problem. The antidote is sharing and connecting, and that can be done no matter what your circumstances. In Betty Friedan's The Fountain of Age, she took a look at happy communities of elders and found that they occurred in both wealthy and poor places, from co-ops in New York City to trailer parks in Florida.

My friend Sara Davidson wrote a book about a decade ago called Leap. In it she addressed the questions Baby Boomers are asking, like, “What do I want to do with the rest of my life?” and “How do I want to live?” One of the other questions she examined is, “Will we develop communities where we can grow old in a good way that keeps us enriched?” We need to keep asking this question.