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Aging is a lifelong process of gradual change

Everything changes – the seasons, weather, plants, friends, fashions, television programs. All of life is change. Some changes are hard; others are easier. How we've learned to handle change in the past affects how we cope with it in the future. A key thing to understand about change is that, in most cases, you lose something but you also gain something. Aging is about changes – and in some ways you lose things while in other ways you gain. Each age has its assets and its liabilities. Aging is a lifelong process of gradual change.

Talk about the changes that come with increased age. There are a lot of myths and inaccurate information out there. Consider these facts during your discussion:

  • Most of our physical capacities reach their peak when we're teenagers or young adults, and begin a gradual decline after that. The decline is so gradual that we usually hardly notice it until decades later. Regular exercise can have a significant effect on how much we are affected by the changes in our body systems and structures.
  • No matter what age we are, we all have some level of impairment. No one has perfect everything – vision, hearing, physical agility, and so on.
  • All five senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch) tend to decline with age. For example, for many people, vision acuity can begin to decline as early as age 8, which is why people of all ages wear glasses.
  • Statistics show that older people are often better drivers than younger people. Even though their reflexes and perceptions decline slightly over the years, older people have learned to anticipate potential danger and drive defensively.
  • Height tends to decline with age. There are some decreases in average height after age 55. This decrease appears to be caused mainly by changes in posture (i.e. slumping) and by decreases in the intervertebral discs.
  • While there may be some minor, occasional lapses in memory with age (we all forget where our keys are once in a while), creativity and judgment improve for many people as they grow older.
  • Intelligence doesn't decrease or necessarily increase with age. But its nature can change. A young person may be more adept at a task because of their "fluid" intelligence, while an older person may rely more on their "crystallized" intelligence or their lifetime of experiences.
  • Older adults can learn well, but sometimes not as quickly. Learning ability is better for older adults who are intellectually active and who frequently engage in challenging mental activities.
  • Personality does not change as a result of age. If you're happy when you're young, you'll probably be happy when you're older. If you're easily irritated when you're young, you'll probably be easily irritated when you're older.
  • More people over 65 have chronic (long-term) illnesses that limit their activity (43%) than younger persons (10%). The most common chronic illnesses among older people are arthritis (49%), hypertension (36%), hearing impairment (30%), and heart disease (27%). On the other hand, older people have fewer acute (short-term) illnesses than young people.
  • Only about 5% of adults over 65 have an incurable form of dementia such as Alzheimer's Disease. Even among those 80 years and older, only 20-25% have some form of dementia.
  • A small number of people, around 4%, of those 65+ live in nursing homes. The percentage varies with age: only 1% of adults between 65 and 74 live in nursing homes; only 6% of those between 75 and 84; but the proportion rises to 22% among adults 85 or older.
  • Life satisfaction is highest among those who consider themselves "young." Actual chronological age has exactly the opposite relation to well-being. Emotional discomfort declines with age and life satisfaction increases. Older people report less distress and more happiness and life satisfaction. In one study, just over 20% of people in their 40s said they were very satisfied with their life, while nearly 50% of people in their 70s and 80s said they were very satisfied. So, although "old" is widely viewed as a period when one has little respect and influence, it's also the time when people can feel the happiest and most satisfied with life.

It's important to remember that all changes with age are highly variable depending on the individual. There are a number of factors that determine how a person ages. In general, environment counts for 20% and heredity counts for another 20%. Another 10% is medical. 50% is your lifestyle (e.g. nutrition, whether or not you smoke, level of exercise, exposure to the sun, even occupation, education, and income). So, good health in later life depends on healthy habits developed during youth. Also, what we lose physically, we can often compensate for in other ways. The human body is like a long-distance runner with its own sense of pace. As the years advance and steal some vitality, there's still plenty of physical capacity left to sustain an active life. It's disease and bad habits that interfere with our quality of life.

Discuss changes and aging in four different age groups: children (birth to age 12); teenagers (13 to 20); younger adults (21-60); older adults (age 61+). What kinds of changes occur in each time period? How do you know? Is a change "good" or "bad"? Why? What do you lose and what do you gain?

To expand the discussion, look at each of the four age groups – children (birth to age 12); teenagers (13 to 20); younger adults (21-60); older adults (age 61+) – in terms of the changes a given age group has to adjust to that the other age groups don't usually have to adjust to. For example, a child has to learn to walk, feed themselves, use the toilet, play with other children, begin school, and learn to read and write. No other age group faces these kinds of changes. Teenagers get into dating, peer pressure, going away to school, doing their own laundry, cooking, earning money. Adults have to adjust to marriage and raising a family, developing a career, learning to save money, buying a house, and planning for retirement. Older adults usually have to adjust to retirement, living on a fixed income, moving into a smaller home, the death of friends and spouse, and the birth of grandchildren.

© SV Bosak, www.legacyproject.org




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