What if aging is the solution, not the problem?

A grandchild pushing her grandmother down the driveway in a toy car

By: Craig Van Valkenburg, Willamette View CEO

Nearly all the messages we get about aging are negative: A 50th birthday card features a withered man in a walker and asserts that life is “all downhill from here.” Anti-aging products abound, promising to delay wrinkles and restore youth. Even healthier approaches to aging emphasize ways to cope with or merely survive “old age.”

A book cover for "The End of Old Age" by Marc E. Agronin, MD

But what if aging is not the problem we’ve been conditioned to believe, but the solution to the stresses of our lives? That’s the radical argument made by geriatric psychiatrist Dr. Marc E. Agronin in his book “The End of Old Age: Living a Longer, More Purposeful Life” (Da Capo Press, 2018).

Agronin’s total reframing of how we think about aging – how much we can accomplish because we age, not in spite of it – applies to anyone at midlife or beyond, whether you’re 40, 80 or in between.

The book’s title grabbed my attention because in it I recognized a pillar of our culture at Willamette View, a senior living community just south of Portland, where I am CEO. Our Milwaukie campus overlooking the Willamette River is emphatically not a place to “end up” after you’ve lived the best parts of your life. Instead, we’re a place where life can continue to expand and your purpose can further unfold.

Given all the anti-aging messages we encounter, this positive philosophy toward aging may be hard to wrap your brain around. Here, Agronin’s book can help.

My top five takeaways:

1. Ageism is a reflex. It’s time to challenge our tendency to define aging by its downside, Agronin argues. Consider those 50th birthday cards – would we ever denigrate someone on the basis of gender or ethnicity, as we so casually do based on age?

2. There is no “over” the hill. The assumption that we can’t improve beyond a certain age is wrong, says Agronin, who draws evidence from scientific studies as well as his own 20-plus years of working with older adults.

3. Aging brings new, specific strengths. Aging and the experience of aging bring wisdom, resilience and optimism. For example, Agronin highlights the ability of an aging brain to weigh and deliver better decisions, in part because an older brain can exert greater control over emotional responses than a younger one.

4. If you think it, you’ll become it. For good or bad, what we think about aging is what we will become as we age, Agronin writes. For each of us, then, it’s critical to redefine aging not by the “standard definition of decline and loss,” but as an essential path to well-being.

5. Purpose is protective. It is “a product of aging and its greatest tool,” Agronin says. Through aging, you can realize your purpose. With it, you can do more than “survive” your later years – you can do something positive for yourself and the world around you.

A senior having a good time playing video games with headphones on

If this sounds like an overly rosy view, keep in mind that Agronin is clear that loss and infirmity are real challenges and inevitable as the years pass. No one is promised a long or healthy life; yet, in the United States, if you reach age 65 today you can expect to live, on average, into your mid-80s. Even in the latest stages of life, he argues, we have the capacity to experience purpose and meaning, although we may need help to achieve it.

That said, aging well doesn’t just happen. Agronin challenges readers at midlife and beyond to “begin shaping and reshaping aging in your own unique ways,” and provides an action plan for getting started. Here again, I recognize in his approach a shared sensibility with Willamette View. Our residents inspire me on a daily basis with their commitment to deepening long-held passions and connections and carving out new ones, in keeping with our community’s vision “to transform the experience of aging.”

For the youth-centric, often ageist culture that surrounds us, Agronin’s unconventional message is an energizing antidote. The longer, more purposeful life of his book’s title is possible, the doctor promises. But only when we stop seeking youth – and start seeking age.