by Patti Digh, Council on Aging for Henderson County Board Member
In this series, we are exploring the norms around aging in each of the countries that will be represented at our Wine Around the World event on October 22, 2015. There are tickets left, but they’re going fast. Tickets can be purchased at our office or online here: coa.eventbrite.
REFRAMING WHAT IT MEANS TO GROW OLD
There is nothing inherently problematical about growing old. And yet in most nations, old age is increasingly understood in “social problem” terms. As we all must age and eventually die, any cultural belief system that cannot provide security, meaning, and self-esteem for those who reach the conclusion of life’s natural sequences will eventually have to change.
Such is the case in the United States, where the cultural values of youth, vitality, competitiveness, and self-sufficiency are decreasingly relevant for an ever-increasing proportion of the population. Being life’s culminating stage– and because endings (whether musical resolutions, joke punchlines, desserts, or funeral eulogies) have a way of shaping the meaning of wholes–the meaning we attribute to old age shapes the very meaning of the entire human life-cycle.
CHANGING “AGE-ISM” IN AUSTRALIA
The most recent Australian suicide statistics show that, out of the whole population, men aged 85 years and over have the highest suicide rates. While the attention these figures have garnered is a positive sign, this is hardly a new phenomenon.
Over 38 men in every 100,000 of that age group die by suicide, which is more than double the rate among men under 35. The rate is around seven times higher than in women of all ages.
With very few exceptions in Australia’s history, annual suicide rates have always peaked in older males.
This is a common theme worldwide. Most countries record their peak suicide rates in this group. So why has the problem of suicide in older males not been an issue of concern for the general public?
And why are these men committing suicide? Partially because our definitions of vitality (and perhaps manhood itself) leave them out, causing them to experience severe depression, loneliness, social isolation and lack of social support; physical health issues, such as pain and cancer; and loss of independence. And partially because of our own ageist attitudes, which cause us to believe that being depressed in old age is “normal,” when the opposite is actually true: clinical depression can (and often does) lessen with aging.
What does the Council on Aging for Henderson County do that works to counter the beliefs or stereotypes about aging that are prevalent in Australia and other Western cultures? The Council actively promotes the individual dignity and agency of the elderly, and in doing, aids in their belief in their own independence and social support.