Maine isn’t generally considered a retirement magnet, but the Dirigo state has the country’s highest share of older residents, with 22 percent of our population age 65 or older, slightly more than Florida.

This fact may cause you to think that Maine is filled with “grouchy geezers,” “sexless elders” and “terrible drivers.” These are the words I often hear when I ask my seminar audiences what words come immediately to mind regarding how society views old people. Other frequently shared descriptors include the nouns “codgers and oldsters” or the adjectives “elderly and geriatric” (meaning significant disorders). These are demeaning.

In 1969, Dr. Robert Butler wrote a book titled “Why Survive? Being Old in America.” The book won a Pulitzer Prize, and in it, Butler defined ageism as the “systemic stereotyping or discrimination against people because they are old. Ageism allows younger generations to see older people as different from themselves, thus they subtly cease to identify their elders as human beings.”

Words matter. In 2019, the Frameworks Institute did a survey on nouns associated with aging and put the results on a scale of “least competent” to “most competent.” The noun those surveyed associated with least competent was “senior,” followed by “elder” and “senior citizen.” The more competent descriptor was “older person,” with “older adult” in the top spot as being “most competent.” Regardless, what’s most important to us is how we are treated, especially in health care.

As director of geriatrics research at Maine’s only medical school, I’ve implemented several innovative learning programs so our medical students fully experience what it’s like to be older. One program, Learning by Living Nursing Home Immersion, “admits” medical students into nursing homes to live the life of a resident for 14 immersive days and nights. The students are given a diagnosis, are confined to a wheelchair, eat pureed foods and get awakened at 3 a.m. to take their meds (M&Ms, actually). This has proven to be a real eye-opening, brain-awakening and life-changing experience that creates friendships regardless of the 50 to 70 years’ difference in the students’ and residents’ ages.

The second program is the Hospice Home Immersion in which medical students live in an acute care hospice house for 48 hours to provide patient care, family support and post-mortem care while participating as an interprofessional teammate, which is our goal for how health care should be administered.

The third program, which we received grant funding for, utilizes technologically advanced virtual reality training, developed by Embodied Labs Inc. Students put on VR goggles to become an older person with macular degeneration, hearing loss, terminal cancer, dementia or social isolation challenges. VR allows all UNE students and faculty to experience these conditions as if diagnosed with the disease. Feeling empathy, gaining understanding and recognizing the uniqueness of each older person and their situation is the underpinning for these distinctive and innovative programs.

There is power in aging. We older people are survivors who lived through a Great Depression, a world war, Vietnam, the civil rights movement, bell-bottom pants and big hair. Young people come to us for advice, perspective and support. Society typically associates aging with loss, but we are active participants in life and have much to share.

Regardless of age, we live full lives that include joys, sorrows, learning, adventures and challenges. You see, this isn’t about age; chronologically, we age each day. Age is only one, two or three numbers – it shouldn’t define us. We get more different from one another as we age and let me be clear: If you were grouchy when you were younger, you will likely be grouchy when you’re older! Our “essence” endures time and, therefore, aging. Aging doesn’t promise that we will be wiser, more resilient, kinder and more self-aware, but depending on what makes us “tick,” we sure hope so! So watch what you say to yourself about aging, keep your heart open and boundaries up to support this important crusade to reframe aging!

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