Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Aging: Throw Out the Stereotype and Bring in the Potential

happy seniorOur society is guilty of Ageism, the negative stereotype of aging adults based on the presumption of inevitable decline in intellect, memory, physical capacity, mobility, and sex drive. Depicted in media, greeting cards and jokes, it has been ingrained in the culture and reflected in the expectations of both young and old alike.

Well beyond the jokes and sitcoms, however, the downside is reflected in forced retirement, job discrimination and sub-standard care of the elderly, to mention only a few examples. On a personal basis it is reflected in a one-dimensional view of self that settles for stagnancy and decline and overlooks potential.

It is difficult to change a cultural perspective – but not impossible. There are increasing challenges to ageism worth embracing.

Medical advances – As expert on aging, Gene Cohen suggests, modern medicine now allows us to view negative body changes as modifiable age-associated problems – not destiny.  With the help of medications, cardiac interventions, orthopedic joint replacement etc., people proceed with their lives with a capacity they could not have known years ago.

  • An 80 year old flew to Florida to be at a traditional super-bowl party – he was wearing a heart monitor.
  • A group of 64 year plus fraternity buddies are together on their yearly ski trip -with plenty of medication and a number of replaced body parts. 

Research- Pew Surveys not only find older adults reporting more happiness in their lives than in their middle years, but researchers like Craig Bickhardt, find that neurophysiologically there is an increased potential for positive change and enhanced creativity in the second half of life.

  • A retired dentist begins writing short stories.
  • A female real estate broker joins an art program and is startled by what emerges on her canvas and its impact on her life.
  •  Two retired language teachers take a risk and develop a specialized “Theme” travel business to accompany small groups to exotic places. Their life together is enriched.

Strength and Diversity in Numbers

  • Expanded by the 77 million baby boomers, the senior age group of 65 and older is now for the first time, at the top of the census numbers.
  • As such it is not only the largest group in the population, it is a group with diverse strengths. It includes members of the Greatest Generation who have proven that they will do anything and their children the Baby Boomers who insist on doing everything.
  • Both exert a positive momentum, the older group reports feeling satisfied with the lives they have lived and appreciative of what life offers. The baby boomers, worried about aging, have begun to re-define it, to consider expanding the positive potential in aging.
  • They speak of rewiring instead of retiring, of new chapters, of renewed marriages or new marriages, of “their turn,” of redefined self, of breaking free from working full time to living full time.

 How Does an Individual Maximize Aging Potential?

Positive aging, like happiness, is a multidimensional concept. It invites us to use all we have been physically, psychologically, cognitively, socially and spiritually while we pursue all that we still can be.  It is facilitated by a flexibility of perspective, curiosity, creativity and connection.

Flexibility of Perspective

  • Much as it is limiting to deny the reality of aging, it is as limiting to deny, “feeling young” – (Most pew survey respondents from ages 50 years and up report feeling 10 years younger – Those 65 plus feel 20 years younger).
  • In this regard it worth embracing the concept of experiential age as a way of defining self. It invites you to be many ages during any given period of your life – young enough to take on physical challenges, old enough to give advice about business, ageless enough to fall in love. It broadens sense of self to respond on a multiplicity of levels – not just on the linear plane of “years lived.”


  • Part of resisting aging has to do with the fear of the unknown laden with the negative stereotypes of the culture. It is what makes many people just stop moving forward-life just pushes them. It makes others try to live in the past or through others at a great cost to vitality and happiness.
  • The safest place to be when you are entering a new phase, place, life chapter or relationship is curious. It allows you to go forward with people, places, and things with permission to psychologically “try it on.”  There is nothing to lose and everything to gain. When you are motivated by curiosity you often end up in chapters you could never have imaged – a great example of positive aging potential.


  • There is growing evidence that engagement in the creative arts is an invaluable component to expanding biopsychosocial well being. Be it art, music, poetry, drama, or dance, there is something of a fit between the aging brain and the involvement in creative endeavors.
  • Given that distance facilitates creativity – one wonders if a lifetime of pursuing more functional endeavors brings aging adults to the arts with an open and different perspective than they might have had earlier.
  • The fact that so many people put down their early interest in the arts to pursue those things that the world feels they need to do to “ make a living,” one wonders if the freedom of later years is also a time to reunite with an artistic self that was put on hold.
  •  It is telling that some say in later years imagination out trumps memory.
  • Beyond the arts, the concept of creativity as the tendency to generate or recognize ideas, alternatives, or possibilities that may be useful in solving problems, communicating with others, and entertaining ourselves  is extremely important in positive aging. In some ways creativity is the fuel for aging potential.


  • Connection is a vital part of positive aging. One of the entitlements of this time of life is the freedom to love and benefit from any and all connections be they the romantic love of a partner, the passion for one’s art, nature, the love of friends, pets, grandchildren, a higher power.
  • To bear witness to such passion in groups, writings, or shared art, adds a social component that furthers the connection.
  • Romance is a gift in life.  Some have it with a partner for a lifetime. As such, some find that the creativity to express love in the face of changes from aging make it that much more special and appreciated. Far from bemoaning the “ empty nest” many baby boomers lock the door and finally enjoy being alone.
  • Sometimes new unexpected romantic love is sought and found in midlife or later years and it reflects unexpected glimpses of self as well as comparisons of past loves and earlier life experiences. If it gives to you, if it allows you to give, then it offers potential and enrichment.
  • Rarely will the positive love of a new partner at any age jeopardize the love we have felt for others. Because we are all of what we have loved – new experiences stimulate, add to our memories, enhance our understanding, and invite us to enjoy where we are in life.

You are never too old to set another goal
 or to dream a new dream.

Les Brown


Listen in and call in on Wednesday, February 15, 2012 at 12:30PM ET  when I will join Kelley Connors and her guests on Women on Health blogtalkrdio to discuss  Creativity and Love: What’s Age Got to Do With It?

Happy senior woman photo available from Shutterstock.