Back In My Day: The conversation on aging reaching full circle

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To preface, this column has certainly been a joy to write and research, learning not only about the hoops and hurdles but also the joys and feel-good moments that older adults go through as they progress across the lifespan. As a gerontology student, it’s been a bit of an academic journey having the opportunity to hear back from other, much more prestigious writers in the gerontology community and receive their feedback. However, even after hearing from colleagues and scouring the Internet for what to tackle next, I found myself skimming through the same topics time and time again. 

I often read through the prominent news sources for older adults; we’re talking about the Next Avenue, AARP, the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology and Milken Institute on the Future of Aging’s of the world. Paula Span’s “The New Old Age” column in The New York Times also sheds some very helpful light on the conversation in the aging world. 

However, all of these sources, myself included, essentially give off the same impression: We must improve our attitudes on aging and change our rhetoric on the world of aging and figure out the future of aging after the pandemic. 

If we look at Span’s column, if it’s not about kidney disease, it’s about cancer; it’s about dementia; it’s about prediabetes — you catch my drift. Many of the news and media hits that professors in the Leonard Davis School are involved with include the same topics, from healthy eating to risk factors that could lead to neurodegenerative diseases later in life. 

It honestly felt a bit degrading to just skim through those article titles, imagining that at some point, I may have to figure out all of those things for myself too. So, it’s no wonder that people really don’t want to age and have negative stereotypes about the aging process.

Consequently, I came to the conclusion that the gerontology conversation was done, that the conversation had essentially become a broken record stuck on fixing the medical narrative. I realized that I am guilty of this too. In reviewing the titles of my past columns, I realized that they gave off the same impressions as the news sources previously mentioned. To be fair, I don’t think that I’m in a position to radically change the conversation either. But, before my feet get stuck to this soapbox, let’s take a look at what we can do and what’s really going on. 

Let’s put it this way. The conversation on aging and older adults as a whole still is not over, but it seems to have come to a standstill. Aging is inherently in everything that we do. Change in our values, interests and ideals across the lifespan is part of that. We can have conversations about older adults and aging in the context of technology, business, medicine and the arts. In an academic institution, it makes sense that all of the work we cover in gerontology relates to the science of aging, particularly what makes it tick and how we can improve it. 

However, what about aging in the movie or theater industry? What about older adults in the agriculture sector and how technology is playing a role in transforming their way of life? Or what about that one random older guy in Greece who’s competing against large corporations in creating delicious pastries from phyllo?

“But Lois,” you, the inquisitive reader asks. “All of these questions are suitable for the conversation on aging and, frankly, are a bit niche in nature. I get that aging is this overarching, timeless theme of humanity, but what’s your point?”

Did I just act passive-aggressively against myself? Yeah, I did. But have faith that it’s for good reason. Time and time again, members and academics in the aging community ask, ponder and research the tough questions. But in doing so, they often direct the narrative of aging into one that relies heavily on statistics and science. 

Movements to recognize older adults on the big screen or in the workplace may fall short given the push in the direction of STEM. That’s not to say it’s particularly a bad thing, but there’s a whole world of conversation that we’re missing out on. The issues go both ways, with younger individuals believing that the wires, pills and hospital bills are synonymous with age and with older adults not being able to see that there’s an opportunity to adjust with digital natives. 

But at the same time, we must face the facts. Age is part of physical development, and many of those developments include the degeneration of certain parts of the body after decades of use. Varying healthy practices can help reduce chances of a neurodegenerative or chronic disease, but science shows that it is the older generation that most often encounters these issues. 

Where can we improve? Well, like many questions similar in nature, it’s a loaded answer. There needs to be a push in diversifying the research and work done on behalf of older adults. Plenty of the research that currently circulates academic classrooms has an emphasis on certain races and socioeconomic groups. 

For instance, there’s a clear and alarming lack of data on older Black women aging within their local community regardless of age and independent of any external assistance, otherwise known as “aging in place.” Marginalized groups are left out of the picture, meaning that interventions and solutions passed on their behalf may end up just being completely lackluster. We need to diversify the conversation on aging into other areas, looking at older adults outside of the traditional medical narrative. Age Inclusion in Media is one of very few outlets looking at older adults’ representation on the big screen (along with other handful recommendations).

The conversation needs to continue moving forward, and we’re far from reaching full circle on this narrative. However, as we continue to explore new avenues of discussion, it is important that we recognize the diversity and individuality of each and every niche that is impacted by aging. 

Hopefully in the future, we can reflect on the foundation that we’re building today when it comes to improving the aging process, thinking, “Back in my day…”

Lois Angelo is a sophomore writing about the intersections of gerontology and social issues. He is also co-chief copy editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Back In My Day,” runs every other Tuesday.