People tend to think of getting older as a slow and steady decline, an inevitable road to illness, incapacity, and mental confusion. But now that I’m just beginning my 80s, my take on aging is very different from what it used to be.
I published my first book last year at 79, and I’m already thinking about book two. I continue to make new friends, work out four times a week with a trainer, and I just had one of my TikTok videos go viral at over 116,000 views. (TikTok: Grandma.Gains)
Most people want to live a long life, but few want to get old. We worry about aging; we fear it and fight against it. Yet even so, while we’re quick to notice when other people are starting to age, we persist in believing that it won’t happen to us. (Of course, we also hope it will since the alternative is not so great either.)
According to the United Nations Global Report on Ageism, “Ageism arises when age is used to categorize and divide people in ways that lead to harm, disadvantage, and injustice. It can take many forms including prejudicial attitudes, discriminatory acts and institutional policies.” And let’s be clear: ageist attitudes exist toward all ages. For example, perfectly capable older people may be turned down for a job because they’re too old; but it’s also true that perfectly capable younger people may be told they’re too young. Or, many people think old people are likely to feel lonely and depressed. That’s true in some cases, of course, but the suicide rate is the highest among teens and young adults.
And consider this: one research study showed that over 82 percent of elderly participants rated their physical and emotional health as good or better than it was when they were younger. How’s that for putting the lie to the idea that youth is the happiest time of our lives? They had less stress and were living full and happy lives.
Still, the fact is that prejudice against old people seems particularly widespread—and even dangerous. Many older people report experiencing ageism in some form at least once a day and may internalize this negativity and end up feeling bad about themselves. This, in turn, can keep them from reaching out and doing some of the things that could help them feel more socially connected and engaged. That’s when you end up with isolation and loneliness, both of which can have actual negative consequences for your health.
Ageism can affect your health in a more indirect way by affecting the diagnosis you may receive. That’s what happened to my mother. When she was seventy, she went into the hospital as an outpatient to have knee surgery. Before the operation, she was totally sharp. There wasn’t a senile bone in her body.
The surgery itself went fine, and she was sent home with instructions to take the prescribed pain pills twice a day. After a few days on the pills, she was unable to remember her name, address, phone number (except for the phone number of her beauty shop which she remembered perfectly) or where she was. We ran back to the doctor and, sure enough, she flunked all her memory tests. My father and I were positive her problems were due to the medication; the doctor insisted they weren’t. I argued that she had been completely coherent before the surgery: no one become senile in a few days. The doctor ignored what I said and asked to speak to me privately.
“I know it’s hard,” he told me gently. “But you’re making your parents feel bad. They’re aging and you need to let them age gracefully.”
I was furious, of course. We went home, threw out the pills, and she was herself in another day or two. It turned out she was highly allergic to one or more of the ingredients that were in the medication which is why her reaction had been so dramatic.
The doctor assumed that her memory problems were due to age and failed to look for other causes. He saw what he expected to see in a woman over 70 and his ageist beliefs interfered with his ability to make an accurate diagnosis.
My mother at least was lucky that she got the treatment she needed. Not everyone does.
Often it’s the sole criteria for access to medical care or lifesaving therapies. In 2020, research revealed that in 85 percent of approximately 150 studies, age determined who received certain medical procedures or treatments and who didn’t. And, if you lose out, it can be a killer.
My mother’s experience and one of my own many years ago were the catalyst for my book Sidelined: How Women Manage & Mismanage Their Health (I’m in the process of changing the title since it doesn’t reflect how strongly the book supports women). The book examines the ways in which women of all ages are still misunderstood, and sometimes mistreated, by the medical profession. That means older women may experience a kind of double whammy when it comes to dealing with doctors which is why it’s so important to proactively look at and take charge of our own health.
I’m not saying that aging is a piece of cake or that it’s easy to combat institutional prejudice. But I do think that you’ll have a better time if you prepare for it. Do what you can now to ensure that it goes as well as possible and is as good as you can make it. Depending on your circumstances, that can be tricky but, more than likely, it’s doable in some form.
Exercise as much as you can. Walk, lift weights, do balance exercises. Check with your doctor to find out what you can do. The more you move, the better off you will be.
Eat well. Typically, appetite declines as people age. Our digestive system slows down, energy needs decrease, and our sense of smell, taste, and vision change. Good nutrition can help modify some of the risk factors. A low carbohydrate diet, a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, cereal and fish can promote healthy aging.
And then there’s sleep. As people age, circadian rhythms which help control whether we’re sleepy or alert, change. Establish a regular sleep routine, go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning. If you can have a quiet time at night before you go to bed. And don’t go to bed right after you exercise. You won’t sleep as well if you do. The best part of aging for me: I no longer worry about dying young.
Susan Salenger is the author and researcher behind Sidelined, How Women Manage & Mismanage Their Health. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Susan attended UCLA to study English. After graduation, she worked alongside her husband Fred for 25 years at their production company, Salenger Films, which produced corporate training and development films distributed worldwide. Today, at age 80, Susan lives in Northern California to be near her incredible
family which includes her two daughters, four grandchildren, a cat named Max and a dog named JD (Salenger). When she is not speaking about her book or spending time with family and friends, you will find Susan power lifting to stay in shape.