By Nicole Villalpando, Austin American Statesman
Dr. Bill Thomas wants you to rethink your ideas about aging. Everyone wants to age, he says. “Everyone wants to wake up tomorrow morning. There’s not anyone who doesn’t want to age. But there’s a fear of the stereotype of aging.”
We scare ourselves and that scare is more of a myth about aging than reality. It’s not our fault. Our culture is incredibly ageist, he says, and that has to stop.
Thomas, a gerontologist from Ithaca, N.Y., is coming to Austin on Wednesday, Oct. 21, as part of his Age of Disruption Tour. At Zach Theatre, he’ll perform a theatrical nonfiction piece with music, “Aging: Life’s Most Dangerous Game.”
Thomas, 56, who helped create The Eden Alternative and The Green House Project, both models of alternatives to nursing home care, is a senior fellow at AARP’s Life Reimagined Institute and author of “Second Wind,” about finding deeper connection as we age.
He spent 20 years trying to reform nursing home care or find alternatives, but what he discovered, he says, is that the root of the problem was ageism. “If I really wanted to make a change, I had to attack the ideas that led to nursing homes in the first place, Thomas says.
He likens ageism to a disease. Instead of fighting the symptoms (nursing homes), he wanted to start attacking the disease (ageism).
The truth is, he says, we need older people, just like we need young people and middle-aged people, but our culture tends to evaluate people’s worth based on their productivity, instead of what they bring to the table. For seniors, that’s wisdom and life experience. For people in their 20s, it’s energy and enthusiasm. This idea that we stop growing at 18 is also false, he says. We never stop growing and changing and learning new things.
When we label things in negative ways, like the Silver Tsunami (talking about the aging population, specifically the Baby Boomers), we’ve declared defeat, he says. “I would argue that it’s the Silver Reservoir. … What’s missing is a society that makes abundant use of a wealth of experience.”
We should be celebrating our successes, he says, rather than complaining or crying about what we no longer have.
Our views about aging are also hurting younger people. They are growing up with a deficit of experiences with elders, he says. It used to be that three generations of family lived together. There was a close connection between grandparents and grandchildren and the grandparents often served as an emotional buffer between the parent and the child. The grandparent, he says, could help calm parents down and remind them what they once did as children.
We shouldn’t be segregating older people into senior communities or facilities, which is what we’ve increasingly done, he says. “Historically elders have never been isolated from the main body of people; that’s a modern phenomenon.”
He points to Scandinavian countries as examples of alternatives. There apartment complexes have mixed ages of occupants as well as adult day care and child day care in the same building.
Aging doesn’t have to be an unhappy experience, he reminds. In truth, he says, statistically, the 70s are the happiest decade of life. The 40s are the least happiest. (Think about who is raising teenagers.)
Instead of wishing for a different time in our lives or chasing methods to appear younger, we should be appreciating the age we are. “Every age is the best,” he says.