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Exceeding Expectations


Exceeding Expectations
Aging experts talk about the importance of adults growing older on their own terms

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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 and unproductive."

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 age group.

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 well-being."

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 for Austria.

"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 10–15 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 adult."

by Margaret Nagle
May-June, 2004

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