How old are you?

Years ago, when I was studying Gerontology, I had a professor who taught a class called “Ageing and the Law”. I can’t remember his name, but I remember a number of things he said as he was older himself and he dropped tiny pearls of wisdom (or truth bombs- depending on your perspective) at virtually every lecture.

Once he said, “Every person has a chronological age and the age that they would say they were if they didn’t look in the mirror. Often, you will find that these two ages are different. If you don’t believe me, go ask some people and see what they say”. At the time I was working in three separate subsidised housing complexes and had access to about 900 older people. I decided to test my professor’s theory and ask some of the residents the question. It. Was. Amazing.

To one very conservative older lady, I asked “How old would you say you were if you didn’t look in the mirror?” She closed her eyes, took a deep breath and smiled like I hadn’t seen before and chuckled. She said “I’d say I was 22. The boys would come home on leave (from the war) and we’d go down to meet them and then we’d go out and dance. We’d just dance and dance and dance. Those were the best times.”

To an older man I asked the same question. His face changed and brightened as he told me that when he closed his eyes he felt 19- when he was just starting out in the world and it was open to all possibilities.

I asked the question any number of times and it was always the same, the age that people feel is quite often not their chronological age. This isn’t to discount people’s life experiences that make up who they are, rather, that what is on the outside is not the whole truth of a person. Maybe you’ve had the experience of truly seeing someone for who they are and not for their physical limitations or ‘old’ appearance. If you work in aged care, this may be one of the things you find most valuable in your work.

As aged care reform marches on and we talk about ‘care’, levels of support, assessment and registered providers, perhaps it’s time to think about older people as…people. People who feel largely the same as they did at a particular point in time before they had limitations-before they required support. Perhaps it’s also a time to recognise that older people have rich life experience and are a growing part of the social capital we have available.

As providers of aged care, how can we tap into the knowledge and experience of older people to help us in supporting them as they age? It’s worth having the conversation and really listening to what is important and ideas about how it can happen.

If we are lucky, we will grow old, and will be able to offer to those who would listen, the enthusiasm of the age we feel, combined with the experience of the years we have lived.

Go on. Close your eyes. How old would you be if you hadn’t looked in the mirror this morning?

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