Lois A. Bowers

We know that aging doesn’t have to be a negative experience for older adults — due to the process itself or because of how some others might react to it. We also know that it doesn’t have to challenge the recruiting and financing efforts of senior living operators either.

Our society, however, has some work to do before it realizes the vision that LeadingAge President and CEO Katie Smith Sloan relayed at the organization’s recent annual meeting: An America freed from ageism.

“Instead of celebrating life’s journey, ageism assaults America’s core values that all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” she said. Ageism, Sloan added, “reinforces the notion that older adults are a burden to their families and to society.”

One challenge that those fighting ageism might encounter, suggested by one of the annual meeting’s keynote speakers, is that we can’t agree on when old age begins.

Many associate old age with being 65, the traditional age for the start of Medicare coverage and retirement benefits. Ask a 65-year-old what old age is, however, and the answer likely might be 75, said Sanjay Gupta, M.D., a neurosurgeon and chief medical correspondent for CNN, citing one study.

“I have a feeling those 75-year-olds would have said even older,” the 46-year-old said. “And people under the age of 30? They think 60 is old.” Across all people queried in the study he cited, 68 was the age at which old age was said to begin, Gupta said.

When asked whether they want to live to old age, however they define it, most people say it depends on what their physical and mental health will be, the speaker said. If only we could know.

People might be encouraged by what another LeadingAge keynote speaker said, however.

The hallmark of high achievers, according to Angela Duckworth, Ph.D., is grit, which is the combination of perseverance and passion over the long term. And the good news, added the professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and author of a book about grit, is that older adults naturally have more grit than those who are younger.

“It looks, from the data, like people get better as they get older, at least psychologically. And not just grit, but dependability and conscientiousness; in wisdom; in judgment; massive gains in emotional stability, which is a great thing; and then my favorite, niceness, or as psychologists like to call it, agreeableness,” Duckworth said. “It looks like as we get older and we live life and we make some good decisions and we make some bad ones and we learn from these things and we grow, that we, in fact, mature.”

And people we might consider to be old don’t feel old, Gupta said.

“Most adults over the age of 50 feel at least 10 years younger than their actual age,” he said, citing research. “One-third of those between 65 and 74 said they felt 10 to 19 years younger than their actual age, and a significant number of people 75 and older said they felt 25 or more years younger than their actual age. It’s fascinating to me. The older people become, the younger they feel, and the more likely they are to see ‘old age’ as something referring to later in life, no matter your age.”

The finding, Gupta said, “tells us a couple of things. As much as we think, talk or joke about it, we don’t really think we’re going to get old,” he said. “And also, we probably think that getting old is a lot worse than it actually is.”

Sloan encouraged LeadingAge members to “start thinking about the subtle ways that ageism is infused into our everyday lives. Have the courage to speak out against it. Only by recognizing it and actively working to change it can we begin to make a difference.”

The senior living industry already is on its way to dispelling myths related to aging with efforts such as Juniper Communities’ trip to Burning Man this year and the many intergenerational programs being launched at communities across the country. Relaying research such as what was shared by Gupta and Duckworth, and continuing to expose younger generations to members of the Greatest Generation, the Silent Generation and the front edge of the baby boomer generation, will go a long way toward realizing the goal stated by Sloan, which, formal or not, is a goal for the entire industry.

Lois A. Bowers is senior editor of McKnight’s Senior Living. Follow her on Twitter at @Lois_Bowers.