Laura Carstensen A Long Bright Future

ISBN 13: 9781610390576

A Long Bright Future

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9781610390576: A Long Bright Future

The twentieth century bequeathed us a fabulous gift: thirty more years of life on average. Supersized life spans are going to radically alter society, and present an unprecedented opportunity to change our approach not only to old age but to all of life's stages. The ramifications are just beginning to dawn on us.... yet in the meantime, we keep thinking about, and planning for, life as it used to be lived.

In A Long Bright Future, longevity and aging expert Laura Carstensen guides us into the new possibilities offered by a longer life. She debunks the myths and misconceptions about aging that stop us from adequately preparing for the future both as individuals and as a society: that growing older is associated with loneliness and unhappiness, and that only the genetically blessed live well and long. She then focuses on other important components of a long life, including finances, health, social relationships, Medicare and Social Security, challenging our preconceived notions of old age” every step of the way.

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About the Author:

Laura L. Carstensen, Ph.D. is a professor of psychology, and the founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. Her research has been supported for more than twenty years by the National Institute on Aging. A Guggenheim Fellow, an NIH Merit Award winner and a member of the MacArthur Foundation's Research Network on an Aging Society, she lives in Los Altos Hills, California.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1
Five Myths About Aging You Can't Afford to Believe
 
If we're going to develop a clear-eyed view of our futures, as a prelude to making old age better and longer-lasting, we're going to have to get rid of as many myths about aging as we can--and there are plenty. In fact, there is a very good chance that much of what you think you know about aging is wrong.
The entire aging process is fraught with unappealing stereotypes and discouraging myths, probably because few of us see aging up close until we're fully immersed in it ourselves. American society is so age segregated that the few older people we do know are usually our grandparents or elder relatives--a small and decidedly unrepresentative sample whose very status as close family often blurs the nuances of their personalities and their lives. We often appreciate just the roles they fill, not the people they are.
After all, how many of us have subtle and complex understandings of the older people in our families until we're older ourselves? I certainly didn't ask a lot of questions of my older relatives when I was young. I loved them, but didn't really try to get to know them as individuals. For their part, older relatives may not spend much time disclosing the details of their personal lives to the younger generation; a family's focus is usually on the young ones. Until my Aunt Mabel was in her nineties, I assumed she had been single all of her life. In fact, she had had a short and turbulent marriage when she was young woman. Until I was middle-aged, I didn't know her sister had been found dead in a hotel room, and I still don't know the circumstances that surrounded her death. I didn't know that my grandfather was the person in his small Nebraska town to whom everyone turned whenever they needed any sort of appliance or radio repaired. The man apparently had an instinct for electricity. Maybe it is no coincidence that his son, my father, grew up to study electromagnetic fields. But I didn't make these connections until I was aging myself.
In the absence of personal knowledge, we may expect all older people to be cut from the same cloth as the few we happen to know. I suspect that this is why aging stereotypes tend to run to one-dimensional polar opposites, either based on happy times at holidays with beloved older family members, or on negative interactions with people who seem extremely irritable or sick. Worse, when we imagine what we'll be like ourselves when we're older, we tend to extrapolate from our limited family experiences, and that's not always a pretty picture--it depends on whether your particular Aunt Betty baked cookies or had dementia. Time after time, I've given talks about aging and people in the audience tell me either that they believe a particular finding because their grandmothers are just like that, or they refuse to believe it, because their grandmothers aren't like that at all.
Few of us see the scope, the range, or the complexities of older lives. For purely selfish reasons, this is problematic because it makes it hard to know where we're headed ourselves, and to consider the vast range of possibilities ahead. The truth of it is that older people's life paths are anything but binary; there's a good deal of shading between saintly granny and sour grump. Their lives are also anything but bland. In fact, in terms of personality and life experience, older people are the most diverse part of the population. My dad likes to say that all babies are alike--as infants, they have little opportunity to differentiate. But with every decade of life, every twist in the life path makes people more individual, less likely to have been shaped by the exact same set of experiences as anyone else. Consequently, as a person grows older, chronological age tells us less and less about what they will be like. It makes no sense to embark on discussions about aging societies by reducing older populations to their lowest common denominators.
As a practical matter for people who want to plan happy, healthy long lives for themselves, or for a society that wants to engineer them for everyone, these myths don't just seed doubts, they are impediments to change. They create worries that cloud the imagination and blunt hope, even if they never pan out. They create social stresses and divisions between generations that don't really need to exist. They promote anachronistic expectations about old age that, as a species and a society, we have simply outgrown, and that are out of step with the way real people live today. Much of the time, they paint such a grim picture of the future that we dread thinking about it, never mind planning for it!
Let's start by getting rid of five of the worst myths:
* The "Misery Myth" that older people are sad and lonely
* The "DNA Is Destiny Myth" that your whole fate is foretold in your genes
* The "Work Hard, Retire Harder Myth" that we should rush to exit the workforce
* The "Scarcity Myth" that older people are a drain on the world's resources
* The "We Age Alone Myth" that how we fare in old age is entirely an individual matter, and not a function of society
Myth #1: Older People Are Miserable
The biggest myth on the menu is that older people are inevitably unhappy, lonely, and dejected. If you've been dreading the passage of time because you worry that your happiest days are behind you, take heart. I've spent the last thirty years investigating the psychology of aging, and my research consistently shows that, in terms of emotion, the best years come late in life.
With the exception of dementia-related diseases, which by definition have organic roots, mental health generally improves with age. Older people as a group suffer less from depression, anxiety, and substance abuse than their younger counterparts. In everyday life, they experience fewer negative emotions than people in their twenties and thirties--the people we stereotypically think of as the most happy--yet just as many positive ones. Moreover, older people manage negative emotions better than younger people do. When negative feelings arise, they don't linger the way they do in the young. Many people, even social scientists, are shocked by these findings. They challenge our implicit understanding of happiness, which is that it flows from the esoteric qualities of youth: health, beauty, power. But if these naturally recede with age, why are older people so content?
This has been dubbed the paradox of aging, but I maintain there is more logic than paradox. The answer lies in something we might commonly call life perspective; a more technical term that I and my colleagues have introduced is "socioemotional selectivity." I'll discuss our theory about this concept in greater depth in chapter 4, but the crux of this idea is that human beings are unique in their ability to measure the passage of time against a sort of internal "life span clock," keeping track of where they are in the life cycle. When we are young, time seems expansive, and we focus on acquiring knowledge, seeking novel experiences, and enmeshing ourselves in a large network of friends and colleagues. As we age, we sense the clock winding down and our attention shifts to savoring the time that is left, focusing instead on depth of experience, closeness, a smaller set of goals, and a highly selected group of loved ones.
This change in perspective seems to bring with it a new way of evaluating what is worth one's time, attention, worry, or wrath. For many, this translates into a greater tendency to let go of life's negatives, and to focus on the positives. My mother managed to nail this perspective with a single sentence in an e-mail she sent me last week: "Still having terrible winter weather, but isn't that full moon beautiful?"
For most older people, simple pleasures expand in importance. Sticky interpersonal situations don't seem worth the trouble. Good times are cherished, and there is greater recognition that bad times will pass. People are more likely to forgive when time horizons are limited. Even the very experience of emotion changes with age; feelings grow richer and more complex.
Indeed, social circles shrink over the years, but it's not an indicator of loneliness. Usually this shedding of connections is felt as a beneficial change, as people distill their social roster to their most valued friends, weeding out the coworkers and casual acquaintances who took up so much time and effort before. Older people report being more satisfied with their social relationships than younger people do, particularly prizing their relationships with their children and other younger relatives.
Marriages deepen, too, starting around the time that the last of the couple's children leaves the nest; in fact, many couples reach honeymoon levels of satisfaction when the kids move out. One of my favorite findings about long-term marriages is that even unhappily married couples report that, after many years together, they are happier than they used to be. It's actually the relatively early years of marriage, particularly the points at which the kids are either toddlers or adolescents, that take the biggest toll on marital contentment.
Mind you, it's not that young and middle-aged married couples don't enjoy parenting or love their children--they do. Rather, children tend to produce tensions between mothers and fathers. Young parents suddenly have less time for enjoyable activities with each other and find themselves in frequent conflicts over how to care for the baby. Even in homes where the parents strive to be egalitarian, a more gendered division of labor arises. Fathers may feel left out of the close bond that forms almost instantly between mother and child, and feel pressured to work increasingly hard outside of the home to provide for the new family. Stay-at-home mothers often feel burdened and left out of the world.
Once the children are grown and launched from the home, couples reconnect. I try not to smile when the college students I teach at Stanford express concern about h...

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