As we write this, Richard is 76; Dave is 63. Obviously, we’re old. But in other senses, we’re not old at all. As we look back across the decades, the words of Bob Dylan in “My Back Pages” come to mind: “Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”
Spoiler alert: You’re getting older; everyone alive is getting older. Eventually, if you live long enough, you’ll be what is sometimes referred to as “old old.” And yet, it’s almost taboo to talk about getting old, much less acknowledge being old. Yet in spite of all the denial, most people want to live to be as old as possible.
Always on the move, William H. Thomas, M.D., author of What Are Old People For?: How Elders Will Save the World, is a man with a purpose: to challenge conventional views of aging.
Far ahead of his time, “Dr. Bill,” a Harvard Medical School–trained geriatrician, is particularly well known for pioneering the Eden Alternative, a radical system of humanizing nursing homes by introducing plants, pets, and even children into the environment. Now, he has given up practicing in favor of proselytizing about what it means to grow old.
In conversation with Richard, he says, “My view as a geriatrician is that we have to grow up twice—from childhood to adulthood and from adulthood to elderhood. If we don’t mature during adolescence, all kinds of alarms go off. But for the second phase, there are no bells, beacons, alarms, or rituals if we miss it. I see aging as a strength, rich in developmental growth. What we need is a radical reimagining of longevity that makes elders central to our collective pursuit of happiness. How we perceive aging to a very large degree determines how we age. It’s the story that matters. How people interpret their experience goes a long way to determining their well-being.”
According to Thomas, our culture rewards the ideal of an older person who “still” does what they used to do. They fill their life with what has historically given them pleasure and fulfillment. They define success in backward-looking terms. The older person is admirable because they’re still acting like a younger person.
But if “still” signifies success, then people who can’t “still” do those younger things are failures. “This is wrong,” contends Thomas. “We need to push the delete key on ‘still.’ In older adulthood, the word still is a sign of success; in childhood development, by contrast, the word still is a sign of failure.”
As a geriatrician, Thomas believes that embracing death is a path to a more meaningful life. He has observed that “the happiest people are those who have chosen to shed the illusion of immortality. Knowing they have limited time, they focus more on purposeful relationships and less on pleasing others, less on stuff, more on experience. They choose to be their authentic selves.”
Currently, Thomas, on the cusp of elderhood himself, is focused on helping people of all ages to live in the place and manner of their choosing. “We’re lucky if we get to grow old,” he says. “I want to help people grow whole, not old.”
This article was co-written by David A. Shapiro.
Reprinted from Who Do You Want To Be When You Grow Old?: The Path of Purposeful Aging with permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Copyright © 2021 by Richard J. Leider and David A. Shapiro.