On our last trip to the Gary and Mary West Senior Wellness Center, we were given the opportunity to interview elders about their aging experience. As the interviews progressed, I realized that I didn’t need the list of questions I had come prepared to ask. The questions began to flow naturally as the conversation gained momentum.
The first gentleman I interviewed, we’ll call him Alex, was born in Ethiopia and moved to America in 1982. He surprised me in many ways. He writes in 4 different languages: Oromo, Amharic, Arabic and Harari. He has always enjoyed composition. He moved because he wrote against Communism. Once in America, he started to heavily drink alcohol. He admitted to drinking 10 bottles of malt liquor beer everyday until 2009 due to his health. His experience in San Diego has been somewhat tumultuous. He said that it has been difficult to find a job here and he has experienced discrimination. He plans on leaving San Diego for Florida where he may be able to get a job at a convenience store.
The second gentleman I interviewed was the same senior that I bonded with previously and he is mentioned in my last blog as Joe. Joe said that he is currently the happiest he has ever been. He enjoys aging as a man because women can be too concerned with their self-image. As women age, he noticed that they still try to look attractive. I connected what Joe said in this conversation to the seminar book I read, The Cultural Context of Aging: Worldwide Perspectives. One of the chapters discussed various definitions of successful aging. A marketing agenda has developed where companies have tried to link successful aging with antiaging. This type of link demonstrates the fault in our culture regarding aging. Instead of trying to avoid the process of aging, aging should be embraced as a time of continued active and meaningful engagement in society. In fact, both of these gentlemen revealed that they feel the healthiest they have ever been in their life! While this may not be the case in reality due to life burdens and cumulative effects, Alex and Joe demonstrate the power of positive thinking on health.
From these two interviews alone, I learned that there is a great deal of individual variation in the rate of aging and the physiological processes related to it. Joe is older than Alex, but you probably wouldn’t be able to tell just by looking at their overall health. While Joe grew up relatively well-off in a stable household and admitted to investing his money well as an adult, Alex told me of his lifetime experience working as a custodian and dishwasher.
The physical and social environment and the structural factors in those environments had a formative effect on their sense of selves and their sense of self-worth. Joe knew his potential and was proud. In contrast, Alex grew up encountering discrimination his whole life. When asked what makes him happy, he said that he is happiest when people see others as equal because discrimination makes him tired. Ultimately in their efforts to focus on the upside of aging, I believe Alex and Joe have achieved successful aging.