My mother always reminded her kids that people judge you by the company you keep. The admonition was meant primarily for my brother who tended to prefer the company of neighborhood rowdies – the kids who ran around with their shirttail hanging out, their knickers not pulled up, their hair uncombed, and used inappropriate language like “gosh” and “gee whiz.” (Yes, yes, I know. But that was back in the Dark Ages.)
She was right – people do judge you by people with whom you associate. But in our contemporary culture, few people are concerned about the judgment of others. However, if you are at midlife, and you want to retain youthful characteristics and vibrant good health, the company you keep is very important for a reason rarely discussed.
And that reason is this: We develop “old” thinking and behaviors from observation and emulation of “old” or “older” people we associate with most frequently. They could be family members, close friends, neighbors, or co-workers. And let’s not forget the influence of archaic conventional wisdom and consensus thinking. “Oldness” is insidious and viral. You really have to watch what you allow into your head and adopt as your own.
Does someone in your family insist on being catered to not because of an infirmity but because “I’ve done for others all of my life, and now it’s time for others to do for me”? Grandma did it, so you do it, too. We should do for our elders, but not when elders are perfectly capable of caring for themselves. It’s unkind and unwise to encourage dependence. If entitlement or other “old age” behavior causes unhappiness in your family, it can stop with you.
Aside from family life, one of the best places to catch the oldness virus is in retirement communities or any living situation where you are in contact primarily with people your own age.
Retirement communities, for the most part, are beautiful. They are quiet, well maintained and many offer amenities that can keep you going nonstop: Trips, classes, social and sports events, state of the art exercise equipment, music, arts, crafts, tennis, swimming, theater — you name it. What more could you want if you are over 50?
What you should want, and must want, if you are determined to Put Old on Hold is regular association with people of ALL ages and circumstances. If you are at midlife (50-55), healthy, and choose to buy into a retirement community, think about the environment you will be in for a very long time.
In a new community that stresses active lifestyles, there will probably be many residents about your age. But what happens as time goes on? Assuming the community remains stable, there probably won’t be too many younger people moving in over the years. You may consider that a bonus, but remember this: Over time, your closest friends and acquaintances will likely be those within the community, especially if your lifestyle becomes more settled. This is something to consider ahead of time.
The life span has increased by 27 years in the past century. Those bonus years represent a long time to live in a situation where predominant topics of conversation, eventually, will be about aches, pains, which neighbor is in the hospital or who died last week, and which widower is up for grabs, and what his favorite casserole is. The reality is this: If you are at midlife and you choose to segregate yourself in a seniors-only environment, the “oldness” virus will get you sooner than later.
Young people, as irritating as they often can be, can also be open, patient, kind, understanding and tolerant. For me, one of the joys of working is the opportunity to interact with young people. On more than one occasion, their presence has helped me lighten up on impatience and crankiness. You cannot pay for that kind of therapy!
Exposure to young people is essential if you want to broaden your worldview and stay current with what is happening beyond your world and circle of friends. You may not approve of what you see and hear but it does help you cope with reality – something that older people often have a hard time dealing with.
Deliberately put yourself where younger people are. Take or teach classes at the local community college. Join organizations that do not segregate by age, i.e. seniors-only or boomers-only groups. Volunteer to mentor teens who could benefit from your wisdom and experience.
Indeed, if you have a choice, choose your friends, associates and living environment carefully as you age. They can and do affect how well you age and the quality of your life.