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Aging won't change - but your perception of it can
Your attitude toward the inevitable - and your willingness to stay active - can affect your quality of life in your later years.
By Bob Jenkins, LifeTimes Editor
Published December 18, 2007
They came from Boulder and Berkeley, from Chicago and Detroit, from Scotland and Australia, from 40 more states, and three more nations beyond the United States. About 350 of them came to St. Petersburg this month to hear about "life planning" and "positive aging."
The names of sponsors and planners was impressive, too: AARP, Elderhostel, National Council on Aging, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, Civic Ventures, Transamerica, MetLife.
The occasion was more than three days of speeches and interactive sessions in back-to-back seminars, the Third Age Life Planning Conference and the National Positive Aging Conference. The events took place on the campus of Eckerd College.
Dr. Gene Cohen, who holds both an M.D. and a Ph.D. and is director of the Center on Aging, Health and Humanities at George Washington University, gave the keynote address for each conference.
The title of Cohen's department reflects the breadth of a relatively new science that marries brain scans, biochemistry and face-to-face interviews to understand - with the goal of explaining - what is happening to this increasingly important segment of humanity.
Yet Cohen, 61, would never be cast as the tweedy college prof. His quick grin and waves of curly hair around, but not atop, his head make him more resemble Kukla, from early television's Kukla, Fran and Ollie show.
But Cohen is also a noted author: People hovered by his chair after his keynote speeches as he signed copies of his books.
The former chief of the Center on Aging of the National Institute of Mental Health, Cohen peppered his comments with phrases such as neurogenesis, developmental intelligence and brain plasticity. Yet he was also careful to offer the layman's version of what is happening within our brains as the body ages, as well as the importance of people's perceptions of aging.
How you think
There generally have been three views on aging, Cohen said:
Originally it was "nihilism," essentially that people grow old and die, so there was no need to pay attention to the dynamic of the process.
"But in the 1970s, researchers began looking at aging and its potentially modifiable problems," Cohen continued.
"And by the end of the 20th century, we could see the potential for changes and for creativity in aging."
Then he gave the audience first-hand examples of the current state of out-of-the-lab research, briefly discussing his projects.
"Virtually all research so far on boomers," he said, "has been based on surveys" done over the phone or even by Internet. "I have begun the first study based on face-to-face interviews."
What he already knows supports a common criticism that boomers are still self-absorbed. These are the folks whom author Tom Wolfe christened the Me Decade in 1976.
"The boomers are the first group in history whose parents are aging well," and so they expect that they will also have a good, long life, Cohen said. "Boomers are used to getting their way and to thinking, 'It better be okay for me! You, society, better make it okay for me."'
Beyond studying cultural and social trends by speaking directly to those already in the second half of life, Cohen is researching what the youngest among us think of their elders.
"American schoolchildren go through very little (teaching) on aging. . . . They have a positive view of aging within their own family but not a world view. In Western societies they are exposed to wicked older people."
He told an anecdote about his then 6-year-old son waking from a nightmare after seeing 101 Dalmatians and telling his parents to get rid of their copy of the book because he didn't want Cruella De Vil in the house.
Because "we can't wait for children to learn to read" the few books with positive images of older people, Cohen has devised a computer game, with older mentors as coaches for the game players.
Among other things, the game "asks kids what happens to someone who is 70? They usually answer, 'You're dead, you're in a wheelchair.'
"But the answers are much different when the question is, 'What will you be like when you are 70?"'
Then the answers are only positive images.
Cohen said he believes "positive aging," the title of one of these conferences, refers to the "ongoing potential for psychological growth, increase of pragmatic creativity, personal development, meaningful interpersonal relationships and creative expression (and) positive brain changes in how we process emotions."
By "pragmatic creativity," the researcher said he means "putting learned knowledge into context."
Cohen drew a laugh when he added, "Then it develops into having a sense of inner freedom to try something different. It empowers people to think, 'Why not? What can they do to me?"'
Another aspect of positive aging is the combination of maturity and intellect that "yields wisdom. As we age, we tend to use both sides of our brains more equally (which) is like chocolate to the brain. . . . Autobiographies, memoirs and folk art, all these activities are dominated by older people."
Cohen endorsed brain fitness: "Staying sharp mentally is becoming as important as physical fitness." Engaging the mind can be as simple as volunteering. "To the extent that it includes activities with other people, it is optimum. An activity is (best) if you feel like you are mentally sweating."
Aging, he told his appreciative audience, "may be the best example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts."