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How Old You Really Are

One of my staff worked with a senior community in upstate New York near Elmira a number of years ago, and he tells the story of their “brand signature.”  It was a silhouette of a hand against a similarly dark outline of a tree branch with a caption: “In my mind I still climb trees.”  This was a very high-energy community, but they did not have a rock climbing wall in their gym or a tree to climb for that matter.  What they realized is that age is about how you feel about yourself more than it is about your birthdays.

How old are you?  You’ll find different formulas for this, but it seems that we humans, on average, feel about 12 years younger than our drivers licenses may say.  It’s fewer years for very young adults, and the gap widens with age, but the feel versus real gap tends to be about twenty percent.  Why is that?  To some extent it’s cultural.  The gap is much wider in western European countries and America.  Not much gap at all in Asia, and the difference virtually disappears in African countries.  I think it breaks down to three categories: wanna do, won’t do and can’t do.  Admittedly, these are culturally defined, but it’s a lot about cultivating a spirit of potential versus handicap.

The wanna do category of people who are aging have a list of things they have yet to do and want to do (I do not use the term, “bucket list”).  They want to run a marathon in every major city, they want to climb a mountain, they want to play a round of golf at St. Andrews.  You don’t hear them talk about their list of health issues…in fact, they may even show you pictures of the xrays that suggest they can’t do what they, in fact, are doing!

The won’t do is straightforward, but still hard to explain.  Many of these could do if they wanted to do, but they don’t.  It may be a perception of this is how mom or dad was at this age, or it could be a plea for attention or even role-playing the “victim.”  And maybe they just are not convinced of the benefit of getting up and getting out or exercising as it could apply to them.

The can’t do have genuine issues, often defined by genetic heritage or a diagnosis or a tragic accident.  But if you peel back the veneer of that “label” you likely will find a wanna do or a won’t do under the surface.  Michael J. Fox has Parkinson’s Disease.  Yet, he has helped raise $1.5 billion for research to find a cure, or short of that ways to mitigate the challenges of this neuro-muscular condition.  Mr. Fox even maintains a strong sense of humor about the constant assault of his diagnosis.

So, how old are you?  What do you see when you look into the mirror?  And, finally, how old do you want to be?

Charlotte Bishop is an Aging Life Care Advisor, Geriatric Care Manager and founder of, certified professionals who are geriatric advocates, resources, counselors and friends to older adults and their families in metropolitan Chicago.  She also is the co-author of How Do I Know You? A Caregiver’s Lifesaver for Dealing with Dementia.


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