Sunday, March 4, 2012

A Cultural Obsession with Senior Moments

Senior moments--if you're over 50, you have had at least a few of them. And don't forget it.

In case you do, there are many reminders in many forms.

Like the T shirt from Cafe Press that shows a person searching for something, with the caption, "I know it's here somewhere."

You can play the Senior Moments game, "a memory game for those who might need the practice" or get a book on senior moments, either a humorous one like "1,000 Unforgettable Senior Moments: Of Which We Could Remember Only 246" or one that focuses on memory workouts.

And of course there is a persistent attention to senior moments in cartoons, jokes and everyday conversation. "Are you having a senior moment?" (pretty soon you will be a doddering idiot, just wait and see.)

I attended a senior forum sponsored by the local chapter of AAUW a few weeks ago. One of the presenters make a self-deprecating mention of her senior moment as a way of gaining rapport with the audience. Many people grinned or laughed out loud, but I groaned inwardly.

Why? As those who know me are quite aware, I am very fond of having a good laugh. Senior moments just don't do much for me as laugh material. Instead I usually get grumpy.

Sometimes I wax philosophical. I muse, "If we lived in a culture that was more friendly towards the process of aging, I imagine I would find senior moments funnier."

As a society we view aging as a time of vulnerability and decline. You lose your teeth, you lose your mobility, you lose your social cachet, you lose your mind. Of course this is quite hilarious on some level--hilarious, highly charged and discomfiting-- and yes, we often deal with difficult things through humor.

No one wants to lose it. For most of us, this applies especially to our minds. And prevalent portrayals of aging make us very anxious about the prospect of losing our minds. The current focus on debility makes it seem that Alzheimer's or another form of dementia is inevitable. Here's the story--from the age of 65-80, 5-7% of older adults become ill with Alzheimer's. That means 95-93% of older adults do not have dementia.

After 80, the risk increases to 50%. None of us want to be afflicted with dementia. I think our obsession with senior moments is related to that fear.

I was thinking the other day about how it's okay for black comedian Chris Rock to make jokes about black people, but it's racist for (boring) white entertainer Billy Crystal to try to do the same thing.

I'm of that mind about senior moments. If you and I are talking and you mention your experience of senior moments, I can empathize or laugh. But if I am getting bombarded via popular culture with the senior moment phenomenon and its implications --"you are losing it, you are losing it, be afraid, be very afraid!" I am not in a friendly mood.

Of course, I have senior moments. I also have aches and pains sometimes. (I had aches and pains earlier in life, too. Didn't you?) I move more slowly and tire more easily than I did 20 years ago when I was in my youthful 50s.

But I am not interested in defining myself by my deficits. I am interested in illuminating my potential, strengthening positive character traits, healing old wounds, taking risks, and enjoying the freedom and fulfillment that's possible in this stage of life.

I love this photo of an old woman in Indonesia performing an offering dance. I prefer to engage this way, as an old woman performing an offering dance. There is no time when one is too old to create a sacred gesture. In fact, old age lends itself to engagement with life from a sacred perspective.

I wrote the song "Scintillating Secrets of the Older Brain," as a counterpoint to our cultural obsession with senior moments. It's one of the 12 songs in A New Wrinkle, a musical revue on aging.

Why focus on what's wrong? Why not focus on what's right? It feels a lot better and is much more fun overall.

As some of the song lyrics for Scintillating Secrets of the Older Brain tell us:

"New research shows cognition peaks midlife or older—
midlife or older! Cognition peaks midlife or older.

Farewell, outdated theories of the human brain!

Thinking and creating all those years
Means you’ve got dendrite density my dears
forest of dendrites in your brain—branches that shimmer
the woodlands in the younger brain are so much thinner
youth needs more time to grow a wiser mind.

Memories, insights, lifelong skills and great imagination
Brings a capacity for complex cogitation
Now everything you know is an architecture
ready to be orchestrated with a flare
that only you can muster!

And why use one hemisphere when you can use two?
Though few folks know it—that’s exactly what older people do.
Bi-lateral brain activity –a proclivity that grows with age
the stage when you gain access to life’s whole archive
holistically—synergistically—and on dual drive.

Though the subject has not made headlines yet
Don’t let that stop you from enjoying it!

Scintillating secrets of the older brain!
Let’s not forget the almond-shaped amygdala—
With time, torrential storms of feeling
that earlier sent us reeling no longer blow through town.
That’s right! Old people mellow into greater wisdom
and partly that is due to the amygdala and limbic system.
Farewell outdated theories of the human brain!

In other words,
Be erudite or recondite
be smart, be wise, embody equipoise
be an authority or a magician
be prone to flights of great imagination
raise your expectations
set aside your reservations
engage big neural fireworks
& join the celebration!"

You can read more about the fascinating new research on the expanded capacities of the older brain in Dr. Gene Cohen's wonderful book The Mature Mind. You can read more song lyrics from A New Wrinkle at the Sage's Play website.

He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.
---- Epictetus

We are all inventors, each sailing out on a voyage of discovery, guided each by a private chart, of which there is no duplicate. The world is all gates, all opportunities.

---Ralph Waldo Emerson


  1. It's a slow sell, coupled with this country's inability to deal with death as just a natural part of life. Yet, I have hopes. I personally know I see things much differently that I did when I was younger and am much less stressed now because of it. If my parent had been comfortable talking with us about their aging would it have made a difference? I like to think so. So I talk about mine to my sons, my sisters who are all younger than I, and to my grandkids, and not in a scary way either. I don't make jokes out of myself either except with my nearly same age sister who lives much like I do.

    1. Hi Celia, Thanks for your message. I like your phrase "I don't make jokes out of myself" because it seems that's what a lot of older people do--act apologetic or make fun of themselves, kinda as if they were in blackface in a minstrel show. Well, this work of culture change is something I am called to do. Hope all is going very well at your blue cottage.

  2. You wrote: "I am not interested in defining myself by my deficits."

    I concur -- that's such an important concept and one I integrate into my work which has become primarily with older adults. I all too often find my patients expressing some of these stereotypical views of themselves that you describe here as being applied by others to older people. Really like the sentiments your song lyrics express.

    1. Ronni Bennett had a great phrase in her Time Goes By blog the other day. She pointed out that we've been brainwashed by certain ageist language since childhood and that it's dangerous "because it makes us complicit in our own stereotyping." That really says it well.