Tuesday, February 27, 2018

It Gets Better--Sort Of

A couple of years ago I heard something about a public service campaign aimed at gay teens, called "It Gets Better." I think the notion was to tell teens that they wouldn't get bullied after they left high school. I don't recall seeing any of the actual PSAs, and frankly I questioned the campaign, because bullying doesn't go away when you leave high school. What does change is that the older you get, often, the more resilient you are.

Studies over the years have found that mental health improves with age. This runs counter to the popular culture presentation of aging, which is mostly one of increasing decrepitude. But can anyone really be surprised? The older you are, the more struggles you have faced and overcome. In most cases, you can look back at a life of achievements and feel pride. The perspective of time helps one to weather disappointments with the view "This too shall pass." 

The distorted messages about aging given by popular culture are destructive. If young people believe that old age--typically defined by movies and tv as being over 55 or so--is a time of decline and ugliness, they won't look forward to it. They will be more likely to smoke cigarettes, do drugs, not save money, and generally behave recklessly, under the assumption that living past 55 is unimportant and perhaps something to be avoided.  And yet a study recently quoted by AARP found that 80-year-olds are more content with their lives than 20-year-olds are.

Aging, especially for women, is portrayed as something hideous by the media. Unfortunately, many women believe this propaganda and go to great lengths to forestall the signs of aging. The advantages of looking older aren't mentioned--the big advantage being a steep drop in sexual harassment.

It is true that growing older means physical decline--often more decline than what many young people realize. But physical decline isn't what it used to be. Most jobs no longer require physical fitness, and modern conveniences help the partially disabled compensate. Mental health is more important for happiness than physical health--a lot more important. 

Lifespans are getting longer, and many do not anticipate this. I have an 85-year-old colleague with whom I do consulting work. On a recent vacation in California, I met a 96-year-old Park Ranger at a national park. She'd gotten bored in her 80s and decided to get a job. Her job was to speak with tourists about the history of the shipbuilding industry in Richmond, California, and her time working there as a black woman in a pre-integration era. She spoke for a half hour without notes. Who needs to read history when you can hear it directly from the source?

 My best advice to the young is look with your own eyes and speak to older people to find out what growing older is really like.