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Aging is a fact of life to embrace and cherish

Kudos to the Jewish Light for several inspiring articles written last month: Eric Berger’s “Move-in day approaching at Covenant” on June 13; an editorial on “Fulfilling the Covenant” on June 20; and Ellen Futterman’s “Couple gets second chance at love — and marriage,” also on June 20. These articles help build public understanding of a complex social issue that affects everyone but that we are not generally openly discussing: aging. 

At age 34, I’ve been happily immersed in the field of aging for almost 15 years. Like many of my colleagues, my passion for working with older people grew out of personal experience: spending quality time with my grandparents, visiting great-great aunts and uncles in nursing homes on family vacations and weekly conversations at Oneg Shabbat with people 70 years older than me. Those treasured relationships helped me to understand that behind each person is a magnificent and complex story complete with joy, tragedy, humor, accomplishments, disappointment and survival.

As we live longer and healthier lives, there are opportunities to harvest the experiences and wisdom of older people for the betterment of individuals of every age, and society as a whole. And while my guess is that the majority of people agree with that sentiment, our actions often say otherwise.

• We think it’s complimentary to tell someone they “look younger” than their chronological age. 

• We fill our medicine cabinets with creams, pills and elixirs to stave off signs of aging. 

• We raise our voice and talk slowly when speaking to someone using a walker or assistive device.

• We refer to adult incontinence supplies as “diapers.”

• We assume older people aren’t interested in and don’t know how to use technology. 

• We treat older people as “others” and use language that reinforces negative aging stereotypes.

 While aging is a natural, continuous and universal process, negative attitudes toward older people and the aging process are pervasive and unrelenting. Rather than focusing on the strengths and opportunities that accompany aging, we concentrate on what we perceive to be deficits that accumulate over decades of wear and tear. 

Research shows that negative self-perceptions about aging are directly related to poorer mental and physical health, increased loneliness and shorter lifespan. In contrast, those rejecting negative aging stereotypes are more likely to lead healthy, meaningful and social lives for more years.

We are fortunate to have a robust network of programs and services available in our community – St. Louis NORC, Adult Day Center at the J, Covenant Place, Crown Center, Jewish Family & Children’s Service and congregations — as well as community partners such as Aging Ahead, Oasis, St. Louis City Senior Fund and Washington University to name a few. As service providers, community members, children, neighbors and as older adults ourselves, my colleagues and I are well aware of the hesitancy, avoidance, fear, lack of awareness and stigma related to getting older or asking for help in general.

Let’s make progress by opening the dialogue, building relationships and finding strength and beauty through our unifying experience of aging. I hope you’ll call, email or write to discuss further.

Sarah Zoller Levinson is manager of the St. Louis NORC (Naturally Occurring Retirement Community) and chair of the Aging Services Collaborative of Jewish Federation of St. Louis. Levinson can be reached at slevinson@jfedstl.org or 314-442-3859.