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Anticipatory Elderhood

I am on a journey. I am an elder in training.  I call my journey Anticipatory Elderhood. I want to grow into a very old person. I get very strange looks when I say this to people. I believe it is because many people have predominantly negative attitudes about old age rather than seeing it as just another phase of the lifespan–including goods and bads just like any other.  My focus is on the GROWing older part of getting older.  And I’m on a constant search for truly evidence-based ways to make this a reality.

As a gerontologist, people often ask me, “What is the one thing? The one recommendation for successful aging–what I call maximizing positive longevity.

A single bullet theory for healthy living, like blueberries or coconut oil or Sudoku, is what I suspect most people are looking for: Or better yet, a pill or a potion they can take at regular intervals or slather on day and night that would return them to a permanently (misremembered) youthful (too often romanticized) state. As if we’ve all forgotten all the challenges of being 30. And last I checked, standing in one place permanently isn’t a good thing.

This is a big request. How could there ever be just one “single best thing”? Well, that’s not my business.  I am in the longevity business–positive longevity, which brings with it growth, consistency, and decline across all life stages. Each of us experiences the heterogeneity of aging, becoming more different from each other as we grow older.

Today, we know more than we have ever known about growing older and late life. More smart people are studying aging. For example, authors Rowe and Kahn present to us their three factors for Successful Aging:

  1. Avoidance of Disease (Or as the case may be, management of disease)
  2. Maintenance of high cognitive and physical health (this is really what people are after)
  3. Engagement in life (what does that mean, really?)

Blue Zone’s Dan Buettner points to what he calls the Power 9 Principles for longevity, which are abbreviated as follows:

  1. move naturally
  2. purpose
  3. down shift
  4. 80% rule – or eating until you are only 80% full
  5. plant slant in your diet
  6. wine at 5 – which is both about the wine and the socialization
  7. belong
  8. loved ones first
  9. right tribe

Author and Ageism specialist Bill Thomas speaks of Elderhood as the anticipated stage in later life, beyond Adulthood—and of special roles that only elders can play:

  1. Legacy creator- through the journey of discovery, many elders create and share legacies, the impacts of which will extend long beyond our physical lives.
  2. Wisdom giver – wisdom is often shared through storytelling, and sometimes through being a mirror for others.
  3. Peace maker – elders are often more able to see both sides of a situation – a valuable peace-making skill in any situation.

Clearly no one else is recommending just one “single best thing.” And there are many others from many other experts. I can’t argue with any of these recommendations, and still, something seems missing. If you think back across your life, stages of growth, what prompted your own growth and change? Maybe…

When you were 5 and couldn’t wait to be 6.

Before you could drive, you couldn’t wait to drive.

Couldn’t wait date and fall in love and find the love of your life.

Couldn’t wait to go from one grade to the next.

Couldn’t wait to be grown.

Couldn’t wait to be out on your own and have your own place.

Couldn’t wait to start a particular job.

Couldn’t wait to have babies…

What prompted that “couldn’t wait” kind of feeling?

Growth comes from dissatisfaction (or disequilibrium) with the current state of things and anticipation for the next: Anticipation for our futures, for things we want to have or do or be. Looking around and listening, I hear more dissatisfaction than anticipation. I attribute this to the growing pains of searching and poor marketing on the part of gerontologists (for this I take complete responsibility and sincerely apologize). We seriously shortchange ourselves when we think that there are not things to look forward to beyond the present moment. This belief not only dampens our moods it shortens our lifespans. If you are sitting still and not moving and growing, you will eventually become deeply, deeply uncomfortable and dissatisfied with the current state of things. These are growing pains.

 So, what is the theme among all of these growth points? That “couldn’t wait to” feeling: It is…Anticipation.

Anticipation acts in big and small ways. On a day-to-day basis we hopefully have events and activities and tasks that we anticipate, things that keep us motivated and moving forward through our days.

On a larger scale we call this anticipation of the future possible self. This is about who you want to be and become and is made up of lots and lots of daily anticipation.

Anticipation is the missing piece, the motivation to pursue meaningful engagement with our world. The opposite is also true: If you do not feel a sense of anticipation, you are less likely to engage or engage in healthy habits.

I hope you will think for yourselves, and ask: What am I anticipating, eagerly looking forward to, about my day, my week? What am I eagerly anticipating becoming in my future? You may reply: “I’m it, sister! I have arrived!” And to that I say: Hooray! But how do you keep becoming that?

If you find that you don’t have that thing that you eagerly anticipate, I hope you will open up to discovering it. Poke around at those growing pains and see what they are trying to tell you. Because you have wisdom to give, a legacy to create and peace to make in our world.

I believe in Betty Friedan’s words: “Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength.” So, when I am very old, I hope my life will be filled with stories and a legacy of peace making and wisdom. In the meantime, I will continue on my journey as an elder in training. Join me. Let’s learn to anticipate our elderhood.

Let’s learn to love our longevity.

Join me


Ayn Welleford

Dr. Welleford has taught extensively in the areas of Lifespan Development, and Developmental Gerontology, Geropsychology, as well as Ethical Decision Making and Human Values. As Associate Professor and Gerontologist for Community Voice she currently works to make our community a great place for all people to GROW older by bridging classroom and community. Currently, Dr. Welleford serves as co-lead of the Greater Richmond Age Wave coalition with Senior Connections, Executive Director, Dr. Thelma Watson. She has been known to say, “Let’s do something that does something.”

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