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Age is Just a Number

While pursuing our postgraduate studies in the UK in the 1990s, my wife and I had a very good friend living in Lancashire called “Aunty Nelly”. She had been a close friend of my father’s when he studied in the UK 30 years earlier, and although she was clearly not related to me by blood, we always thought of her as our “aunty”. We visited her regularly and went on many outings and adventures with her, and during this time, she would often regale us with stories of the ‘old ladies’ in her village who she looked after. It was only years later that we realised, when talking to other people who knew her, that many of Aunty Nellie’s “old ladies” were younger than she was!

This taught me a very important lesson in life – you are only as old as you feel. Age, indeed, is “just a number”. How many times have we heard this, but what does it really mean to us? For me, it’s a reminder that, while our chronological age is an easily measured marker of our existence on this earth, it has very little to do with our self-perception, or our quality of life. However, society still has a way of putting older people into convenient boxes, and “age” is one of these. How many times have we heard “You too old for that” or “You want to do what at your age?”, or even “Why you want to do that? That is young people thing!”

So, how can we work against these age stereotypes and move past the number? Well, there are three important steps in overcoming these barriers to a full and active life: First – switch off society’s noise and listen to your inner self; second – acknowledge your potential and reach for it and third – surround yourself with like-minded people.

For many older people the values, mores and restrictions of society can produce a negative noise that inhibits us from living life fully. Society often seems to be telling us older folk what we should not be doing, rather than what we can achieve. Yet, the most successful older people in my life all had the ability to “switch off” society’s negativity and carry on with their lives despite social sanction. Aunty Nellie was an active member of her village, a scout leader and an advocate for her neighbours and those without a voice. Many of her friends and family often told her to “slow down” or “take it easy”, but she never listened. Her firm belief was that, once there was something positive that she could contribute, then she certainly would!

For many older people aging is a process of gradually increasing limitations, restrictions and health challenges. In this setting it can be very difficult to focus on the positive – to look at our potential rather than our limitations. However, doing this can provide us with a real sense of self-worth and fulfilment. My own grandmother, a very independent lady, was severely limited by her diabetes in older life. Yet she remained actively involved in the family, kept in touch with all her friends, and often went the ‘extra mile’ to help those in need. To me, she was an example that physical and health limitations do not necessarily define us, once we look towards our potential and find a way to contribute to life and living.

Two years before she died, Aunty Nellie had a serious fall at home, and her well-meaning family doctor put her in a home “for her own safety”. about a month after this, we visited Aunty Nellie at the home. She was a mere shell of herself – depressed, refusing to leave her bedroom, not eating and not interested in anything. She was surrounded by older people who were similarly dependent, ill and lacking the will to live. Against the wishes of her doctor, we did everything we could and finally got her back home, with help from the social services. The transformation was striking. She was back in her own home surrounded by her friends, neighbours and family. She was once again in the thick of things and living an active, interesting and meaningful life. She was soon back to her normal bright self and remained at home until she passed away two years later. The lesson here is that we are deeply affected by our surroundings and the people around us – so it is essential that we keep contact with those people and activities that impact positively on our lives.

So, next time we think that “age is just a number”, let’s also make sure we keep that number in its place. Lets’ focus on our potential, not our limitations; let’s surround ourselves with likeminded people, and let’s not allow society to dictate what we can and cannot do. Remember, if age is just a number; then you are as young as you feel!

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