February 6

Shattering Assumptions about Growing Older

By Rick Banas of Gardant Management Solutions

In her book “Breaking the Age Code,” author Becca Levy, Ph.D., highlights through data and stories the reasons why we need to combat ageism and details strategies that all of us can use to bolster positive beliefs about aging.

Dr. Levy is a Professor at the Yale School of Public Health and a lead researcher in the fields of social gerontology and the psychology of aging. She serves as a scientific advisor to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) campaign to combat ageism. According to the WHO, ageism is the most prevalent and socially accepted prejudice today.

In her book, Dr. Levy notes that how people think about and how they approach aging helps determine how long and how well they live. For example, our beliefs about aging impact our physical and mental health, memory, hearing, how fast we walk, and the likelihood of experiencing depression or a cardiovascular event.

She cites research that demonstrates that many of the health problems often considered part of the normal aging process are really due to the negative stereotypes and negative beliefs about aging that are so prevalent in the United States and many other countries.

Look at all of the negative ways older adults are portrayed in television, movies, advertising, and the social media here in the U.S. Older adults are viewed as a burden on society rather than a valuable resource – individuals with wisdom, experience, and resiliency. The chant we so commonly hear is “It’s All about the Children.”

On the other hand, people with positive views about aging are much more likely to live longer and healthier lives, especially if they are living in a place where there is respect of elders.

She calls on all of us to join the fight against ageism. People of all ages will benefit.

She provides exercises for us to use to bolster positive age beliefs. One of the exercises is to identify older adult role models.

The three that came to the top of my mind were Dick Van Dyke, Ruth Gordon, and an individual who lived at one of the assisted living communities that Gardant manages.

Here is why they made my list of older adults I admire: 

Dick Van Dyke

Dick Van Dyke grew up in Danville, Illinois, a town in central Illinois along the border with Indiana. Bowman Estates, an affordable assisted living community that Gardant manages, is located in Danville.

In 1967, when he was 42 years of age, Van Dyke hurt his leg while doing the movie “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” He was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, and his doctor predicted he would be in a wheelchair in five years.

Some 25 years later, at 67 years of age, he was cast in the lead role in the television show Diagnosis Murder, playing a doctor who helped solve crimes. The show aired for eight years and ended after 178 episodes because Van Dyke decided to retire from playing the role.

At the age of 90, Van Dyke returned to his hometown. He rolled up in a replica of the car he drove in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” He performed with the Danville High School Show Choir. The City of Danville unveiled a surprise in his honor – a street sign reminding people to keep moving. ,

At 91, he played the part of Mr. Dawes Jr. in the movie Mary Poppins Returns, climbing unassisted up on top of a desk and dancing up a storm. Decades earlier, he starred as chimney sweep Bert and as Mr. Dawes in the original Mary Poppins movie.

Also at 91, he became an outspoken advocate for Tai Cheng, a slow-motion form of Tai Chi that improves balance, agility, and strength that especially benefits older adults.

Ruth Gordon

Ruth Gordon was cast in a lead role in the 1971 romantic comedy “Harold and Maude”, which is one of my all-time favorite films. She plays a 79-year-old woman, who has a remarkable zest for life. She teaches Harold, a 20-year-old who is fascinated with death, about the importance of living life to its fullest.

The romantic relationship that develops between Maude and Harold highlights an important benefit of growing older. In “Breaking the Age Code,” Dr. Levy mentions how she got to know psychologist Eric Erickson and his wife and collaborator, Joan. The Ericksons found that starting at about the age of 80 many people experience their deepest levels of intimacy.

Manny S.

I first met Manny at one of the affordable assisted living communities that Gardant manages. I was in the lobby, admiring an eight-foot high wood carving of the Gettysburg Address. The wood carving had recently been on display at the Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Illinois.

Manny, who was a resident of the community, came up and introduced himself. He was the artist who created the wood carving.

As it turned out, he was living right across the street from where I went to high school prior to moving to Heritage Woods of Bolingbrook. He took up wood carving at the local senior center when he was 92 years of age. At the age of 96, he spent three and a half months creating the wood carving of the Gettysburg Address.

At 98, he was still wood carving in his apartment at the assisted living community. He also was a member of community’s Wii Bowling team that qualified for the Final Four of the Affordable Assisted Living Coalition’s tournament.

I loved how Manny would make a point of speaking to other residents about the importance of having purpose in life. There is a reason you are here, he would say.

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