Pretty much everyone has a model in their head for what aging looks like. Almost anyone who works—no matter how young—has probably had at least fleeting thoughts like, “When I retire, I’m going to spend all my time traveling” or, “When I retire, I’ll have all the time in the world to knit/read/build things/run marathons.” Especially as grandkids arrive on the scene, others imagine themselves prioritizing family in ways they haven’t previously been able. In our imaginations, retirement is a time of leisure and a different kind of engagement with the world.
However, the positive conceptions of retirement I outlined above contrast sharply with many public portrayals of aging. The word “aging” tends to be associated with negative things like dependence, decline, and disease. And it’s something we’re told every day we should avoid, as if that were possible. How many ads for “anti-aging” products do we see every day? I’ve never counted, but I bet it’s a lot. Even generally positive actions we’re encouraged to take—like saving for retirement—tend to pose a pretty alarming model of aging (if you don’t save the right way, those commercials tell us, you are headed for disaster, or at least misery).
It turns out that this difference in our ideal picture of aging and what we believe to be the reality is very common. It’s so common that The FrameWorks Institute’s 2015 report on “Mapping the Gaps between Expert and Public Understandings of Aging in America” names it as the number one issue in public perceptions of aging. According to the report, for many Americans, aging is “a positive ideal that is always thwarted by the reality of the issue.” So, most of us have it in our minds that aging could be great, but we don’t think that it is great.
At Immanuel, we do our best to reinforce the ways in which aging is great. This is probably easiest to see in our independent living areas, where you’ll find residents who go for bike rides, tend plants, paint pictures, attend lectures, and travel regularly to new locales as well as their favorite vacation spots. In skilled care, residents generally have less capacity to leave the building on their own, but that doesn’t stop them from enjoying painting, crafts, reading groups, time in the courtyard, or outings with family or on Immanuel’s bus.
“Nursing home aging” is probably, in many imaginations, the polar opposite of “active aging,” so it’s harder in that case to fight the perception that aging is inherently negative. It’s simply true that most of us will experience some physical decline as we age, and if we decline enough, we will need nursing care. But that physical decline doesn’t mean we need to stop being who we are, and it doesn’t mean that we should try to push aging from our minds until it inevitably stops us in our tracks. Immanuel emphasizes that aging doesn’t have to stop us—we want aging to be positive, regardless of what level of care a person requires.
As I read the FrameWorks report, I thought a lot about the Passions Project photos that hang in the hallway of Buffalo Hill Terrace. The photos feature residents from across campus who live active, positive lives. They’re wonderful examples of the ways in which our ideals of aging can, in fact, become real. Whether they’re riding a bike or painting a watercolor, the Passions Project participants are spending their time joyfully, and that’s something we all strive to do, no matter how old we are. If you’d like to think more about how the ideal and real pictures of aging intersect, I encourage you to look at these beautiful photos!