There is a distressing trend I have noticed among those of us who are of the baby boomer ilk: Making fun of seniors. For example, “You know you are a senior if your idea of weight lifting is standing up.” And how about this joke on seniors: “Getting ‘lucky’ means you found your car in the parking lot.” I know, horrifying.
I don’t think younger people make these kind of jokes. I know I never did before I turned 50 and the prospect that I could actually some day be one suddenly occurred to me. I do understand what this is about. We often need to encapsulate something we fear in humor, rendering it hopefully harmless. Seniordom is something most of us rounding the bend definitely fear. We don’t intend to embrace that word; we are simply not going there.
And yet this “seniorphobia” can’t be good for us. Besides being abjectly disrespectful to our elders, being gripped by any kind of phobia is restrictive and unfair to all concerned. If you need proof of this, consider the fascinating research of Sula Benet, Ph.D. anthropology professor at Hunter College in New York City. She was the one who broke the story about those yogurt-eating Abkhazians, living happily in Southern Russia to 150 years old and beyond.
A couple of facts have emerged that originally discredited this stunning study of longevity. One, it is widely accepted that these grand ages were inflated. Another problem is that the Abkhazians (their flag and map is pictured), despite all of those Danon ads, didn’t actually consume yogurt but something called matzoni, a fermented goat or cow milk. Nonetheless, we can’t dismiss the plucky folks from the Caucasus. What was eventually discovered is that more than 80 percent of these folks did make it past the age of 90, with much better hearing and eyesight than similar aged seniors in the industrialized West.
The long-lived Abkhazians did a lot right. They engaged in physically active lifestyles, ate mostly a vegetarian diet with lots of nuts, engaged in work that was pretty much free of the stress of rushed deadlines. They love song and utilize it in most of their cultural rituals. But what is probably most striking about this culture in contrast to our own is how revered they are in their agedness.
As John Robbins says in his new book, Healthy at 100: “The more I have learned about the Abkhazian culture, the more I’ve been struck by the contrast with the modern industrialized world, and the more I’ve become aware of how youth-obsessed we are. In Abkhazia, people are esteemed and seen as beautiful in their old age. Silver hair and wrinkles are viewed as signs of wisdom, maturity, and long years of service.”
Robbins (pictured) also points out that this respect for the elders is reflected in their language. They have no phrase for “old people.” They refer to their many centenarians as “long-living people.” They even dedicate a holiday to honor their long-living, where the villagers gather to honor their seniors who parade proudly in grand costumes.
In this society, one’s status is more determined by age than by wealth or fame. When people lie about their age, they add years. Roberts points out that “you’re looking young today” would not be seen as a compliment, as it would in Santa Barbara. “People there compliment others by saying, “’You’re looking old today,’ meaning that the person is wise and beautiful in their maturity.” Sorry Paris Hilton, if you were a Caucasus heiress, your granny would be posing on the red carpet and getting offers to make steamy sex videos.
Seniorphobia can be as destructive as the other types of “self” phobias. Most of us should know by now how damaging homophobia is, both to gay people and to the society within which we live. Anti-semitism is another one that unfortunately persists, afflicting those who internalize it and our societies where it is projected. When we fear something that is natural and human, either out of ignorance or self-loathing, we make ourselves and our society sick.
I will end my little lecture with a Boomer Alert: Be kind to your Inner Senior; you will need him (or her) to lead you into that fast approaching future!
Dr. Michael O.L. Seabaughhealthspan@mac.com is a licensed clinical psychologist with a psychotherapy practice in Santa Barbara. Send comments and questions to and visit his website and blog at www.HealthspanWeb.com for more information on topics covered in Healthspan.