When we say someone is “young at heart,” we’re usually describing qualities found in young people: attributes such as a readiness to play, laugh and look at the world through a lens of possibilities, no matter the age.
Does this phrase inherently imply that older people lack these qualities? While it’s not a popular phrase in our culture, what might it mean to say someone is “old at heart?”
Mature, wise, experienced and connected into core truths about life are some of the characteristics associated with being old, and yes, they do imply a different outlook on life than what we associate with youth. While these “old heart” traits are societally valued, popular culture reinforces the idea that we need to constantly ward off aging and that youthfulness is most prized.
September is Healthy Aging Month.
Time to examine how being
“old at heart” can benefit everyone!
Who’s Old Anyway?
Defining old age is not easy. To a 30-year-old, someone who’s 50 may look old. A 75-year-old might think of that same 50-year-old as a youngster. Healthy Aging magazine targets people 45+ for its audience. Solicitations to join AARP famously arrive in the mailboxes of people who’ve barely hit 50. Reaching the milestone age of 65 qualifies you for Medicare, finally easing some of the financial pressures of obtaining health care.
Old age is a blanket term for a phase of life that can be many decades long and contains distinct stages: early, middle, and advanced old age. For most people, these stages feel significantly different. Many 65-year-olds don’t think of themselves as old because they lead active lives, engaging with family, friends, traveling and taking on projects or new and interesting challenges. The gradual signs of aging often go unnoticed until one or more changes really become apparent — such as breaking a bone after a fall or realizing you don’t hear, smell or taste things like you used to.
The physical changes that occur as we age don’t happen all at once. Physical strength and vitality peaks between 20 to 30 years old, and typically, at around age 40 we start losing muscle mass. Gradually and steadily, individuals between ages 70 and 80 have lost anywhere from 20 to 40% of muscle mass compared to their peak years. Octogenarians may gradually lose 50% or more of their original muscle mass.
Fixating on the Physical
The physical changes that come with aging — especially those that decrease the ability to move, function and look younger — almost exclusively frame the way we think about old age and leave out the contributions and insights that older people have to offer. Whole industries exist to give hope of finding a “fountain of youth,” and even our health care system’s focus on “fixing” old, poorly functioning body parts lends itself to viewing old age as an undesirable state of being.
Medical interventions such as replacing a painful knee or hip represent progress, both for the individual who gains more freedom to move and experience life, and society as a whole when elders can contribute more fully to it. Eating nutritious foods and exercising are important to well-being at every age, and older people should be supported in this too. But the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle messaging that can come across with these interventions and healthy habits is that the goal is to reverse the aging process or trick our bodies into perpetual youth.
Even among older people, there often seems to be a gravitational pull toward lamenting the aches, creaks and pains of growing older rather than discussing the world around them and ways to continue living in it. Consciously shifting energy away from what aging physically looks like toward appreciating the role of elders in society doesn’t have to involve big philosophical discussions. Indeed, it’s the day-to-day stuff of life where elders have and continue to contribute.
Driving Human Evolution
The “grandmother hypothesis” puts forward the theory that strong intergenerational connections created a unique foundation for humans to evolve and thrive in ways that other primates have not. As elders assisted with food gathering and other sustenance tasks, more children survived due to this nutritional advantage. But the role of elders went beyond food and nutrition. The social interactions between children and elders provided developmental stimulation that evolved into bigger human brains. The modern-day equivalent of spending time with younger generations, taking care of them and helping them learn and understand life, comes from this honorable tradition.
Though it may seem paradoxical, the losses and physical declines experienced by older people may help develop adaptation strategies that create a resilient, strong spirit. Instead of seeing a frail, unsteady, stooping senior walking down the sidewalk, refocusing to the older person’s perspective might offer a different picture. Despite the difficulty, this elder has adapted to their limitations by slowly, carefully moving and expending as much energy as their body allows.
When physical activity levels of older people become severely limited, social engagement becomes a key adaptation strategy that can keep the maladies of depression, anxiety and mental decline at bay. Meaningful social engagement can be as simple as an elder sharing a favorite recipe and the story behind it or discussing an article from the day’s newspaper.
Old age also brings with it the experience of loss. Friends and peers pass away or move away to live with adult children. Adapting to loss is tough for everyone, though elders are likely to experience more of it and have uneasy feelings about their own futures.
But inherent to reaching old age, elders have many life experiences to draw upon. Reflecting on life and sharing insights with others can be a coping adaptation that benefits elders and younger people alike.
Do Less, Be More
There are perks associated with getting older. Keeping pace with the many responsibilities of work, family and household duties start to lessen as we age. We may retire, work fewer hours or switch to a lower stress job or volunteer work. Getting off this gerbil wheel of constant activity provides an opportunity for introspection and the potential for a fuller, more satisfying range of human emotions and connection to others.
For example, an adult getting dinner ready usually prioritizes getting the task done. But a retired older person might notice the sturdy, homely beauty of a carrot, or take pleasure in knowing the stew it will go into will bring family to the table to talk and share what happened during the day.
Even through the social isolation of the pandemic, older adults reported fewer symptoms of depression or anxiety than younger adults, according to research from the Kaiser Family Foundation. The finding is consistent with earlier research that indicates depression is less prevalent in older adults than among younger adults. Not to minimize the problem of depression when older adults experience it due to chronic illness, loneliness or difficult circumstances, it’s important to acknowledge that depression is not inherent to aging.
Explanations about how older people manage their emotions can be found in science journals as well as the popular adage, “don’t sweat the small stuff.” Both the scientific approach and the adage reflect similar observations: as older adults slow down, they take more time to think and reflect. Thinking through a situation can short-circuit an emotionally charged reaction and allows for letting it go.
The brain’s frontal lobe is responsible for regulation of emotion, complex reasoning and speed of processing. Neuroscientists find that even though this part of the brain gets smaller as we age, older people often have greater activity here than younger people do when processing emotions. Social and scientific observation both confirm that as a group, older people exhibit a positive bias, meaning that they don’t waste time on negative thinking and default to having satisfying relationships during the time they have left.
Another aspect of well-being that cuts across age and many other demographics is financial security. Older adults who experience housing or food insecurity or other financial stressors may not as readily fall into the well-being patterns observed in those who are financially secure.
Living “Old at Heart”
Aging is far from one uniform experience. There are, however, traits that older people can develop as a result of living a long life. Slowing down, adapting to the environment and prioritizing satisfying relationships are ways that make being “old at heart” desirable. If society highlighted these aspects of elderhood rather than focusing on decline and loss, elders and younger people alike would all be better off.