When Aging Parents Do Become Old: Is there a tipping point?

From aging to old: What shifts the balance?

 Senior Advisor, R, recently told me she now felt “old.” Most would say “she’s 98. She should feel old.” Yet I truly believe that wasn’t the case until she recently expressed that new feeling, caused by: a cane. 

Old, young, not so old–it’s chronological of course.  It’s also the way we see ourself, think of ourself–our self-image. It’s a feeling, an emotional state–influenced physically by the aging process, influenced by health issues, influenced by interactions with others. It affects our very being.

Some of us–probably more noticeable to those of us who are far-away-living children–find there’s a time when we visit our parents and realize they’ve come “down a notch.” I don’t know a better way to phrase it. It may be subtle initially–or not.

Physical change–appearance (ie. posture, gait, wrinkles, hair loss/color, energy) is what people often notice first, although it’s just one of the culprits leading to the tipping point.

 Appearance and Self-Image

1. In R’s case, she blames appearance–using a cane. After breaking her femur a year ago and working very hard over 3+ months in physical therapy to relearn how to walk after surgery, she now uses a cane when going out. She’s always well put-together–just as before–but she’s certain strangers react differently towards her because of the cane.

Those “you’re old” reactions bother her.  On the other hand, she’s accepting of the fact she is chronologically old and just yesterday said “I feel my age,” making the distinction between that and “I feel old.”

Fortunately she rebounds because “I still have my younger friends who think I’m doing great.” Nevertheless too many of these “you’re old” reactions can cause aging parents to take ownership of them and begin to feel old.

It would seem aging with a positive self-image (no doubt supported and encouraged by friends and family) helps older people age well and overcome (instead of succumbing to) many things that lead to “oldness.”

2. Gray hair, balding connotes “old” when viewed by strangers.  Aren’t we more likely to give our seat on a crowded bus to a person with gray hair–even when we’re not in the “reserved for-the-elderly” seats? Yet offering a seat to an older/old person feels like a put-down to some, a Godsend to others, depending.

3.  Posture (slouched, bent) and gait (shuffling)–another sign of “old,” especially when accompanied by gray hair or balding. I attended a presentation Thursday in which green straight figures represented the # of workers contributing to the social security of 1 senior citizen–represented by a bent-over figure using a walker. Boomers take note!

These kinds of stereotypes can chip away at vulnerable older people’s self-image of “not old,” helping to move them towards the tipping point.

…….to be continued Tuesday 


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