Aging experts talk about the importance of adults growing older on
their own terms
Monday morning just after 6, Katherine
Musgrave is on the phone taping her weekly always unrehearsed radio
segment on nutrition that airs on WZON. She's already done her daily
40-minute walk and 15 minutes of stretches, so it's on to one of her two
offices where she works part-time providing medical nutrition therapy.
This day, Musgrave's got to be at the YMCA by noon, where she's teaching
a seven-week nutrition class. Later, she'll be in her office at the
University of Maine overseeing the coursework of nearly 300 students
enrolled in her Web-based introductory class on food and human
nutrition. She's also got to jot notes for two talks she's giving this
month to community groups.
When the weekend comes, she and her husband, Stanley, may go ballroom
dancing or play bridge.
Katherine Musgrave is 84.
To those who know her, Musgrave is an exceptionally enthusiastic
champion of nutrition and good health. A remarkable role model and
teacher. But like so many of her peers nationwide, Musgrave is not an
older adult who is "keeping busy"; she's a person aging on her own
terms, focused on quality of life.
"The key to living long is deciding on some priorities, not fretting
about fitting into the mold," says Musgrave, UMaine professor emerita of
foods and nutrition. "We need to put aside fears of what we can't do and
realize that, without the rigid responsibilities we used to have before
retirement, we're now free to explore whatever we enjoy. That's been the
answer for my old age. For me, freedom is in teaching; for my husband,
it's being at home reading, and working in the yard and garden. Every
one of us should be exploring where we want to be in old age."
Winston Churchill once said: "We are happier in many ways when we are
old than when we were young. The young sow wild oats. The old grow
sage." Today, that should be truer than at any time in human history,
says Lenard Kaye, director of the University of Maine Center on Aging.
But for too many elders, it's not.
"Today people can live independently until their late 80s or early 90s,
or longer," says Kaye, whose 11th and 12th books on aging will be out
this spring. "They are healthier, more mobile, working longer. That's
why, as a society, we need to stop seeing older adults as incapacitated
It's a fact that elders face challenges in old age, stresses Kaye. Aging
entails loss that can be limiting from physical and mental capacity to
income and financial stability, and social support networks, including
the resources needed to interact effectively in the world. Only a
fraction can keep a schedule similar to Musgrave's, but that doesn't
mean the majority chooses a passive and detached lifestyle.
The real limits in aging shouldn't include stereotypes.
All too often, there's a discrepancy between the personal and cultural
aging experience. Societal expectations dictate how and when people grow
old. Media re-enforce stereotypic portraits of old age. For elders, it's
difficult to maintain personal identity and purpose in life when all
around them, the natural process of growing old is largely either
romanticized or demonized.
Stereotyping and sensationalism in the media have become the basis for
much of the bias and repulsion of older people and the aging experience,
Kaye says. The media highlight the extremes older adults acting
youthful and immature, or being vulnerable, incapacitated, anilistic.
The childlike "Golden Girls" or the elders in rocking chairs or nursing
homes. Such portrayals deny the fact that, because of their long and
varied life experiences, elders are more heterogeneous than any other
If you're growing old in America, it's important to be aware that there
are social perceptions and stigmas associated with the physical and
mental declines in aging, says Margaret Cruikshank, a women's studies
lecturer and author of Learning to be Old: Gender, Culture, and Aging.
"The reality is, individuals don't fit neatly in what society sees as
the deterioration box of old age. People need to know that what society
predicts for them (is usually) not accurate. We need to chip away at
those cultural obstacles to positive aging."
As a registered dietitian, Musgrave sees adults of all ages, including
the elderly, grappling with the values society places on youthfulness,
as mirrored on the silver screen with largely young actors and on
television in advertisements for aging "remedies." Such cultural
pressures take the largest toll on women.
"Most women picture themselves as they were when they fell in love,
encouraged by society that touts pencil-thin youth," Musgrave says. "(As
a registered dietician) I spend most of my time explaining that we're
all not supposed to be that way. Women who want to enjoy their 70s
through 90s need to be able to turn off those messages."
Separating fact from fiction is the first step in understanding aging in
you and others, the experts say. Just as important is to disassociate
disability and death from aging.
"We need to distinguish between realistic fear and the blanket fear that
keeps us from thinking about aging," says Cruikshank. "It's a
demystifying process. It's about being less afraid of the physical
changes of aging and understanding that they are like many other
challenges in life. It helps to be curious and not afraid to talk about
particular losses in physical capacity and other threats to our
Genetics and environment, including socioeconomic status, are realities
throughout the aging process, but should not hamper the goal of growing
older on your own terms, Musgrave says. For instance, Musgrave's husband
has osteoarthritis that can preclude the couple from staying through
several dances on a particular Saturday night. But physical limitations
don't stop Stanley Musgrave from doing what he loves most sitting down
with a good book.
For Katherine Musgrave, health issues have provided a dose of reality,
but not diminished quality of life. She says she felt betrayed by her
body, which she always keeps in top form, when she learned she had to
have a mastectomy 17 years ago. It was a little less of a shock when she
was told she had to have a pacemaker last December, because she was much
more in tune with her own aging process.
Ten days after receiving the pacemaker, Musgrave and her family set out
"I don't intend to slow down, but I am more aware that my heart muscles
are wearing out. Although it's hard, all of us have to recognize that we
can't live forever. That makes it even more important that aging people
recognize their great responsibility to share life experiences.
"I have a 96-year-old friend who's most helpful to me," Musgrave says.
"When I talk to her over the phone, she tells me in a soothing voice
what's going wrong in her body and that she's just getting old.' She's
a great role model for me in my 80s."
There are so many older, interesting people in Maine who have so much to
give, yet they tend to be known only by their friends, says Cruikshank.
"We need to know more about who they are, not because of their wisdom,
but to enrich the lives of the rest of us."
Kaye advocates for a "new perspective on aging," especially among
healthcare and social workers. "We need to concern ourselves with those
in poverty, on their deathbeds and with Alzheimer's, but we also have to
realize that the vast majority is living actively, independently, and
can benefit from our intervention to maximize the quality of their
lives," he says.
People feel better, more confident about their lives if they're engaged
in life around them, contributing to their families and communities.
Such engagement legitimizes your existence. Healthy aging doesn't
require volunteering five days a week at a local school; engagement can
be reflected in reading, developing new skills or talents, expressing
yourself in a variety of ways, says Kaye.
"More important than anything, people have to have options. They should
not feel pigeon-holed into one thing or another, but feel their lives
are a continua of activities."
Without rethinking what we've come to know about aging, Americans will
have a rude awakening in the near future, Kaye says.
"Twenty years from now, every fifth person will be 65 and older 20
percent of our population," says Kaye. "There will come a time when
people live to be 110 or 120 and not totally disconnected from the
world. They will not be invisible."
In the next 1015 years, as the first of the Baby Boomers become
elderly, we'll have "a whole new ballgame," says Kaye. "That generation
will not go quietly into the night. They will be boisterous and their
expectations will be higher. (Instead of adhering to the expectations of
society) they will expect society and the media to be more responsive to
them. They not only will demand fitness centers, but cars, houses and
smart technology designed with elders in mind. Many are already breaking
the rules; they are their own persons, with different mindsets,
philosophies and values than their elders."
Successful, productive aging is more than eating well and being
perfectly healthy. A big bank account doesn't ensure it either, Kaye
says. "You have to be comfortable with who you are emotionally and
physically. If you're in touch with your feelings and body in relation
to the world, you can define for yourself what represents a satisfying
old age. It will not be dictated by news reports, television shows or
the latest diet, but your own measures of who you want to be as an older
by Margaret Nagle
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.