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Forget ageing well, it’s what we do that counts

We don’t get up in the morning to age well, we get up to do something. Something we like doing, that lets us give back, shapes the day, broadens our circle, lifts our spirits and keeps us healthy.

Sounds like the way younger people live, and they seem to do alright.

So, why as we get older does the empire require us to retire from 'doing well' to 'ageing well'. Research tells us that this is what we hate most about getting older: the way society strips us of our 'doing' roles. And we do know about this, it’s a universal convention that you never ask older people what they do. Even if it’s the first question you ask everybody else. Because we know they don’t do much, or even if they have managed to fill their day, nothing much of worth.

But it’s worse, because along with the loss of roles goes loss of the perks that come with roles: purpose, relationships, reputation, growth, structure, inclusion, opportunity – important stuff that’s hard to get any other way.

So, how does the empire do this 'role-stripping'?

It’s pretty clever. It set up a 'wounding pathway' that it requires all older people to travel. It starts by retiring you from your mid-life, with no offer of next stage purposeful activities. It encourages you to start being 'kind to yourself' by backing off on learning and growing. Because you aren’t doing much, it reduces your income. And so that everybody goes along with what’s happened to you, it images you as full-time recreational at best, but mostly as having no purpose.

And in our world no purpose means no value.

Why have we got role-stripping, given the last thing any society wants is a whole generation not up to much, not doing their share, consuming valuable resources, and getting bored and causing trouble?

Without 'roles' there’s really no way for older people to be part of society. So, role-stripping is a way of excluding people who we no longer want in our important lives. We get all the roles and the good things that come with them. And older people get to watch us from the sidelines, consuming the products of our enterprises.

And even though role-stripping is about as bad as it gets in the treatment of citizens, it’s so cleverly and deeply embedded in the social norms of our lives that we’re convinced to embrace it as a long holiday and look forward to it. Which means we all go along with it, and changing it will be very difficult, particularly if we’re expecting the empire to lead the change.

Instead, we looked to those exceptional older people who have managed to escape it. What we found is that they always sustain the 'role-enablers' that younger people use to get and keep their roles, and that they have mostly invented their own roles, not waited for the phone to ring.

Younger people have six role-enablers that they, consciously and unconsciously, exploit to get the roles they want. Money and investing in yourself; skills and reputation; a home that supports roles; products and services that support roles; networks that increase what’s possible; and a sense of purpose. Not only is having these in place actively discouraged for older people, the services set up to support them universally don’t offer them, and even require older people to give them up.

Added to this, the empire ensures that there are no visible role models with purposeful activities that show us the 'role-path' for this next life stage. But, with some digging, we found examples of older people active in 12 role areas. Different to their mid-life roles, because most people didn’t want more of the same. Research indicates that the happiest older people occupied these roles about half the time.

We found older people setting up and joining social enterprises; volunteering in ways that didn’t look like volunteering and certainly weren’t called that; networking and learning with purpose; investing in causes; taking time to adventure; joining up with younger people to add wisdom without the war stories; enabling younger people to be productive; taking community leadership roles younger people no longer had time for; forming new-look multigenerational family arrangements; creating in ways that come with being around for a while; writing down stuff no one else has time for; and working in new ways.

Incredibly attractive stuff, and if it saw the light of day might well be attractive to young and old.

But even waving the essential building blocks of role models and role-enablers in front of older people seems to not be enough for them to escape the role-stripping destiny laid out for them by the empire.

What organisations like Modern Elder Academy and Mindset for Life have found is that older people struggle to make the transition from mid-life roles to the very different next-stage roles. They found that making complex life transitions is a skill that older people often don’t have.

So, they teach them, particularly how to ditch the old mindset that worked well for them in the past, and spot and step into role opportunities when their old mindset says none are on offer. They say that these transitioning skills can be taught and should be offered to all older people.

Which led us to examine just what skills are taught to older people. Pretty well none.

Aged care and other services to older people do everything but skill older people to secure roles. They provide high quality beds but no reason to get out of them.

We asked why would a sector dedicated to the wellbeing of older people be so blind, with such disastrous consequences?

It’s looking like aged care might have grown a bit too close to the empire, becoming solid contributors to the wounding pathway, and resistant to being constructively disobedient of the empire’s bidding.

So, ignore all the ageing-well chatter, and especially from anyone who suggests that you might be having trouble 'letting go'.

Get yourself a new mindset and a new job. Take them with you into aged care. And, whatever happens, stick with 'doing well'.

It’s worked for you all your life, so why wouldn’t it now?

Mike Rungie specialises in the intersection between good lives and aged care. He is a member of a number of boards and committees including ACFA, Every Age Counts, Global Centre for Modern Ageing and GAP Productive Ageing Committee.

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