Is there joy in growing old? What’s the best way to age? Can we improve the perception of old age? Prof. Ehud Bodner, of BIU’s Graduate Program in Gerontology, addresses these questions
Old age can actually be a good time in life, says Prof. Bodner, co-founder of Bar-Ilan University’s Graduate Program in Gerontology. For example, a phenomenon confirmed in many countries around the globe, is the "well-being paradox", which demonstrates that mental well-being does not decrease with age, and, in fact, can even improve. Another evident emotional benefit in the third age is the “positivity bias” – the tendency to focus on positive events and memories.
These changes don’t happen by themselves. In their senior years, people realize that they have less time left to live. This recognition strengthens their grounding in the present – a phenomenon called the “shortened time horizon”. Older adults make good use of the shortened time horizon. They use their life experience, which helps them avoid wasting time on goals that they see as pointless. They learn to be less ambitious, because what they have achieved, they have already achieved, and do not need to prove to themselves or to others that they have value, by acquiring new skills or knowledge. Instead, they put more emphasis on emotions, and on positive emotions, in particular. This change is responsible for the fact that they reduce instrumental social ties needed for climbing up the social ladder and become selective in choosing friends; they put more weight on the meaningful ties in their lives and connect with people they enjoy meeting. The elderly also learn to experience life in a more balanced way, to understand that one does not need to get excited about successes or achievements, because they will be followed by something less pleasant and vice versa: that there is no place to sink into despair after an unpleasant event, because time softens the frustration and pain. This understanding helps them to contain more complex emotional experiences, such as nostalgia, which intermeshes sadness and gratitude and the pleasure of remembering what once was.
All of this seems promising, yet the human and emotional development accompanying old age, occurs alongside many losses: death of loved ones, a decline in professional status and income, physical weakness, diminished beauty, as well as decreased memory and cognitive functioning. At the same time, older adults often confront ageism, preconceived notions and social stereotypes related to this period of life.
Modern society dictates older adults’ specific behavioral requirements, and makes complex demands on them: they should not be a burden at their workplace and should clear the way for young workers; and following retirement, they should also not be a burden to their families and specifically to their children. They must maintain a healthy lifestyle, and not let old age get the better of them; they should eat healthy, engage in sports, but not act like young people. The social expectations are that they should not join entertainment frameworks of young people, they should not reside with the young, not dress like the young, not engage with advanced technology nor be passionate about the music of young people, in short – they should dwell within themselves. Any behavior that is not in accordance with the norms of this age will be perceived as impersonation, as an intrusion into the territory of the young and will be frowned upon.
Submitting to these social dictates along with the focus on losses occurring with old age promotes negative perceptions of aging, such as the perception of old age as a time of deterioration and as a time in which older adults are foreclosed out of business. On the other hand, proper management of emotional life in old age and proper utilization of the shortened time horizon will support the development of positive aging perceptions – and the realization that it is really a privilege to age and to pass on one’s acquired life experience to others. Research conducted throughout the world, including studies conducted by researchers in our program at Bar-Ilan, show that acquiring knowledge about the positive aspects of aging positively change the way aging is perceived and that, in turn, contributes to the health and mental well-being of the elderly and in fact, not only adds vitality, but also (good) years to life.
Positive and negative perceptions of aging also include the feeling of age. In this context, it is interesting to note that most adults, including the elderly, generally feel younger than their actual age. This phenomenon is not necessarily a denial of chronological age. It does not stem from the social dictate that “the world belongs to the young”, but on the contrary – from a correct identification of the state of health and physical and mental vitality of the aging individual, which does not necessarily correspond to the negative social expectations of his/her chronological age.
Looking beyond the academic world, Prof. Bodner notes that the retirement age remains the same and yet, in many nations in the world, including Israel, life expectancy has increased significantly, so that by the year 2050, the number of old adults in the world will double. Such developments extend the period of old age to a generation or more in a person’s life. That’s why we all need to really take notice of the many older people around us. Still, he unhappily admits that he doesn’t know many of his colleagues, clinical or medical psychologists, who choose to treat older adults. Nor is he acquainted with many doctors who specialize in the field of geriatrics or psychogeriatrics. Prof. Bodner concludes that a growing number of older people need these services, and the State of Israel can still prepare for this, for the benefit of the elderly and of society as a whole.
Bar-Ilan’s MA Program in Gerontology was initiated and founded three years ago by Prof. Ehud Bodner and Prof. Amit Shrira, of the Interdisciplinary Department of Social Sciences and by Prof. Haim Cohen of the Goodman Faculty of Life Sciences. Due to the interdisciplinary nature of this field, the program is open to students from diverse disciplines, including medical and para-medical professions. The program comprises unique linkage between social sciences and life sciences along with a field practicum, and even includes a clinical track of therapy for older adults.
For more on the MA Program in Gerontology