By Marianne Delorey, Ph.D.
“You should have seen who I used to be.” ― Resident Johnny
I am a cisgender white woman. As such, I feel it borders on disingenuous to write about aging from anything but this perspective. Even writing about aging is hard as a fifty-something woman with minimal health concerns or chronic complaints.
However, I feel I must try for a few reasons. First, I have a microphone. Not everyone does. I should use this microphone to amplify the voices of those who cannot be heard. Second, if I only write about the perspectives, needs, and views of cisgender, white women, I am missing out on sharing the thoughts of a very good portion of the population. Third, and perhaps most importantly, we all need to exercise our empathy, including me. Reading about, understanding, and imagining aging as a trans person or a person of color will strengthen my empathy muscle.
And so, with caution, I start what I hope to be a series of articles about the “otherness” of aging. I am going to be wrong, so feel free to correct me. I invite you on this journey in part because I hope I am not alone. I am hoping that together we can offer more understanding to ourselves, families, and professional caregivers. Please write in to tell me about the categories of “otherness” that need to have the spotlight. Tell me who you are and what you have seen. Tell me how that has impacted your aging. Tell me what we can learn from you.
Let’s start our journey together with the majority/minority – men. Men make up 50% of the population, but since men die younger (on average), they only comprise about 45% of the population over 65. 73% of men live with their spouse. Men also have a higher median income than women in retirement. Already this means that men have better support in their homes than the average, but there is more to aging than the numbers.
Men also have more to lose. In terms of social status, men have had it all. As they age, more and more gets taken away until they are (as the Japanese describe) fallen wet leaves sticking to the feet of their retired wives. With retirement, they often lack a role and a primary source of meaning. Men are often still connected emotionally to their working lives and still think of themselves as an engineer, plumber, or pest control technician. According to one psychiatrist, upon retiring, men need to create a new routine or risk significant decline in their relationships and/or well-being.
The losses men face can be catastrophic. Older men have the highest suicide rate of all demographic groups. We will focus on this in the next article.
But there is hope. According to new research by Festini and Park, people who self-report as busier tend to have better processing speed, working memory, episodic memory, reasoning and crystalized knowledge. This includes people who are older.
This means that men were lied to. Men were told they could really start relaxing in retirement, but this is not true. Men were also discouraged from forming deeper relationships, another role that prevents people from premature decline. We stay active by being involved. It may not matter if you are sweeping your stairs or reading a book, just the mere act of being busy could keep you healthier. So, set new goals as you approach retirement. Find a hobby, pursue knowledge, spend time with your grandkids, stay relevant, help your neighbor, volunteer, get a part time job. It may not matter who you used to be. As you age, as Dory from Finding Nemo would say, “Just keep swimming.”