Disrupting the Aging Process07/18/2016

Disrupting the Aging Process

Jo Ann Jenkins is the CEO of AARP and has recently released a new book that subverts some common myths about aging -- as well as some seemingly positive perspectives on the issue that may actually be unintentionally damaging.

In Disrupt Aging, Jo Ann Jenkins discusses health, life choices, money, experience and more in a book that's message is as colorful and entertaining as it is enriching and enlightening. The message? Every single year is a gift, so don't try to label as anything other than an opportunity to be who you fully are. It sounds simple, but as anyone who is 15 or 50 knows, putting it into action can be quite challenging. 

Luckily, Coming of Age was able to catch up with Jenkins and discuss some tangible steps we can take to realize our full potential and truly enjoy our golden years. This time of life offers many advantages if we'll just let ourselves lean into them and ignore the harmful connotations associated with aging. 

You speak a lot in your book about embracing age and not trying to rebrand it as "new youth." Why is this beneficial to the aging population? 

Jo Ann: I think a lot of it has to do with the personal value that comes from "owning"your age. I'll give you an example: we're all familiar with catchphrases along the lines of "50 is the new 30" and "60 is the new 40" and so on. I know they're well intended, but I think they've got it all wrong. Fifty is 50, 60 is 60, 70 is 70 and they are -- or can be -- great. As with 20/30/40, it's often what you make of it but it can be easy to lose sight of that. 

What are some advantages that senior citizens and other older members of society have at their disposal in everyday life? 

Jo Ann: Well, I think it varies from person to person and community to community, but one overarching advantage is our sheer growing numbers in society. Right now, there are approximately 100 million people age 50 and up in the U.S. and more than 10,000 people turn 65 every day in the U.S., a phenomenon that's going to keep happening -- every day -- until 2030. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) projects that the U.S. population of people 65 and up will double over the next three decades. Those are staggering numbers and while they present some formidable challenges, I think they hold an equal amount of promise.

Describe the process by which you came to embrace aging. 

Jo Ann: I've never paid much attention to labels, and I think that helped, but my personal experience upon turning 50 (I'm now 58) was kind of a pivotal moment. My husband threw a surprise party for me and it was a wonderful evening spent with lots of good friends, but I was deluged with cards and various well-wishes along the lines of "Over The Hill Now!" and "Next Stop: Old Folks Home" and so on. Obviously, they were all in good fun -- after all, that kind of ribbing is almost a tradition -- but, the funny thing was, I didn't feel all that old. It just got me thinking: what constitutes "old" and how much of it is self-determined? Our approach to aging is needlessly limiting -- it's not how I felt then, and it's not how I feel now...and I think that's true for a lot of people. Over time,that evolved into Disrupt Aging. 

How can we live in a way that shows mindfulness toward our health and wealth while still enjoying our golden years? 

Jo Ann: With longer life expectancy and technological advances opening new doors for self-growth and exploration, it's time to stop letting people say "you're too old for that"and time to change the conversation about aging. Disrupt aging requires us to re-examine our beliefs and attitudes about getting older. The way we are aging is changing for the better and we should be celebrating this. 

How can society improve in their opinions of older people? 

Jo Ann: Perhaps it's the recognition that if you're alive, you're "aging." As such, I suppose we're all "getting older." Expressing negative judgments of people based on race, ethnicity, gender identity, or sexual orientation is no longer socially acceptable to most people, but doing the same thing around someone's age often still gets a pass. I think that will change, especially now that we have what amounts to an extended middle age, where you have some additional 20-plus years added to your life and the fastest growing age group is now 85 and up. We need to make sure that we have systems and programs in place support our longer lives. 

What are some tangible ways seniors can continue to value life and discover newness in every day? 

Jo Ann: I'll take it back to "owning" your age. We get a lot of mixed signals about what aging means and how we're supposed to internalize it. At its heart, the Disrupt Aging movement is not about denying aging, or defying aging, it's about owning your age and embracing the opportunities to live your best life -- at every age.

View similar articles online in Council on Aging's quarterly magazine, Coming of Age

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