Changing Aging: Dr. Bill Thomas at TED

One of the most damaging stereotypes of aging is that the final stage of life is marked mostly by decline and decay.

Dr. Bill Thomas is leading a movement to fight that myth—a movement to fight ageism  as the civil-rights movement fought racism and the women’s movement fought sexism.

Dr. Thomas is a geriatrician who says that as people grow old, they should not be valued only to the extent that they can “still” work at demanding jobs or engage in extreme sports.

Instead, the final stage of life is a time with its own developmental challenges. Dr. Thomas calls this stage “Elderhood” and recently, he spoke about it at TED.  His speech, “Elderhood Rising: The Dawn of a New World Age,” is eye-opening, and he delivers it with passion, intensity, and more than a little humor.

What do you think? Does the idea of a stage of life beyond adulthood make sense to you? Does it make more sense than being in denial or engaging in futile anti-aging? Are your parents or grandparents elders? How about you? How do you feel about being “an elder in the making”? I’d love to have your comments.

photo by shonna1968&ei=utf-8

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Dr Lynda Shaw 11/07/2011, 12:22 pm

    As a psychologist of ageing I’m absolutely delighted to hear such positive words in this video. We do not know for sure what impact negativity has on age-related problems, but we all know that so much of what we say and do becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. So when Bill Thomas says ‘society needs elders’ and how ageing ‘is exciting’ I imagine a lot of elderly magnificent people contributing to their communities with a huge smile on their faces. I vote that we have more positive speak and help one another to always feel valuable and valid

    • Madeleine Kolb 11/07/2011, 1:16 pm

      Welcome, Dr. Shaw, and thanks so much for your comment. I completely agree with your statement that “…we all know that so much of what we say and do becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.” One of my favorite examples is the saying: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” I’m convinced that as people age, having heard that saying over and over in their lives, they tend not to try new things or not to try very hard which means that they don’t do well which they then attribute to being old. It’s time we focused on Changing Aging.

  • Bonnie McFarland 07/14/2011, 11:08 am

    Madeleine, it’s an interesting balance. Not to be fixated on being young or deny that we’re aging. And yet to live without being limited by a # that says how many years we’ve been alive.

    Perhaps if we had a more positive view of elderhood. Who would welcome the “dreary, grim picture of aging?”

    Also I’m wondering if in my mind elderhood and being “old” is always going to be a bit beyond whatever age I am. Like the story of the woman who was dying at 92 and said “Why me?” :)
    Bonnie McFarland recently posted..Aging FabulouslyMy Profile

    • Madeleine Kolb 07/14/2011, 9:07 pm

      It’s a complex balance. I think his speech is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of Dr. Thomas’ concept of aging. As I mentioned above, his ideas are developed in much greater detail in his book. (I need to re-read it and do a review here.)

      And, obviously, the group of people aged 60 on up is a very diverse group in terms of healthiness, happiness, wealthiness, and every other measure. I’m sorting out for myself what aging means. I’m “still” doing many things I’ve always done and also learning new things. At the same time, I don’t feel that I need to to prove that I’m not Over The Hill.

  • Bonnie McFarland 07/12/2011, 1:58 pm

    In my Savoring Your Sixties business, my focus is on helping women have joyous, fun, fulfilling, passionate lives after 60. I share “still” examples to inspire women re what is possible. . . Still dancing at 80. Still vibrant and teaching yoga at 92. Still body building at 74.

    Dr. Thomas’ talk offered a very different perspective on this. I’m not ready for elderhood at 61 nor are many (any?) of the women I know. Of course, that may be just the problem Dr. Thomas is referring to. :) Thought-provoking stuff. Thanks for sharing this, Madeline.

    • Madeleine Kolb 07/12/2011, 8:17 pm

      Bonnie, I’m really glad you commented. I’ve had something of the same reaction, although I think the concept of elderhood as a stage of life with its own growth and challenges makes a lot of sense. Part of the problem with the aegist view that Dr. Thomas talked about is the intense focus on staying young (or at least looking young). One take-away lesson may be that we all (men and women) can have “joyous, fun, fulfilling, passionate lives after 60.” That is far from the dreary, grim picture of aging that is all too common.

  • Madeleine Kolb 06/29/2011, 9:55 am

    I think the stereotype of aging is a viscious circle. If adulthood means power, control, and accomplishment and aging means loss of adulthood along with decline and decay, why wouldn’t we focus on what we’ve lost? Why wouldn’t we be anti-aging and try to look and act as young as we can?

    Dr. Thomas and others are raising important questions about the human life-cycle, about what it means to be young, adult, or old.

  • Cathy 06/28/2011, 7:49 pm

    I do like the idea of being an elder in the making. As we have more birthdays and complain about them, I like to remind myself of what the alternative is. Society definitely puts too much emphasis on staying young. Taking care of ourselves is important, so that we can enjoy our later years. Thanks.
    Cathy recently posted..Just Don’t Do ItMy Profile

  • Madeleine Kolb 06/23/2011, 4:10 pm

    I first learned of Dr. Thomas’ work a few years ago and, like you, loved the concept of “elderhood” as a stage of life with its own growth and challenges. I was interested enough to read his book “What are Old People For? How Elders Will Save the World.”

    Besides discussing adulthood, as he did in his speech, he also wrote about how terrible life in a nursing home generally is for old people. He included a great many facts, examples, and anecdotes. Dr. Thomas barely alluded to that aspect of aging in his talk, although both ideas are essential parts of Changing Aging. Perhaps he could have spoken more about what his book calls The Old-Age Archipelago.

  • Lynne Spreen 06/23/2011, 8:32 am

    I wanted to like this video, and the good doctor, but I wish he would have indulged in fewer rhetorical flourishes (tedious) and jammed some facts, examples, and anecdotes in there. I love the word “elderhood” and the positivity and promise of it, though. Also his concept that adulthood has grown to malignant proportions was a gem. Thanks for the link, Madeleine!