We are living in stressful times. The news seems to get worse by the day. The United States continues to set records for numbers of Covid cases and deaths; healthcare workers are overwhelmed and many hospitals are at capacity; Americans are standing in long lines at food banks; businesses are laying off employees and closing their doors; half the country refuses to accept the outcome of the presidential election; a third of the population will not agree to be vaccinated; and it appears certain that many government agencies and corporations have been hacked by foreign actors, with the extent of the damage still to be determined.
Older people have additional worries. We are either sequestered at home or in assisted living or long-term care facilities. Because of our age and possible underlying medical conditions, we are at greater risk of contracting Covid-19 and being hospitalized. Being unable to be with family is one of the more painful effects of this illness.
As a group, older adults represent four generations—from the oldest of the Greatest Generation to the youngest of the Baby Boomers—and we are well acquainted with adversity. If we have reached our seventies, eighties, and beyond, we have witnessed history unlike any the world has ever known. In the last century we have lived through the Great Depression; two world wars; the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki; the Cold War; the fight for Civil Rights; wars in Viet Nam, Iraq, and Afghanistan; AIDS; 9/11; mass shootings; and two pandemics. And that is hardly an exhaustive list.
It is impossible to speak for all older people as if we are the same. We are defined by so many factors: our ethnic and religious backgrounds, race, education, individual personalities; the generation we grew up in and what was going on in the world at the time. But I feel that we also share some significant strengths, such as resilience, endurance, pragmatism, perspective, and (one hopes) wisdom.
It is those strengths that have helped us survive the storms of life. For one thing, we have learned that events don’t occur out of the blue. Wars don’t suddenly erupt with no warning. Scientists predicted this pandemic long before it hit. Before every mass shooting, there were signs of trouble ahead, but somehow, we missed them.
It may be a bit of a stretch to compare such life-altering occurrences to aging, but they do have some things in common. Getting older should not come as a surprise. We don’t wake up one morning to find that arthritis and wrinkles have developed overnight. We can’t live on junk food and be unaware that we have an increased risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes. And if we don’t move our bodies and feed our minds, we can’t complain when they stop functioning.
There is a lesson in all of this, i.e., Many of the serious events of the past century were predictable, if people had paid attention to history and what was happening all around them in the present. Many of the downsides of aging are also predictable if we educate ourselves about healthy living and practice what we learn. It would be foolish to think we can foresee and prevent every adverse aspect of aging, but the truth is we have more control over how well we age and our quality of life in our later years than our ancestors could have imagined.