Keeping our dignity with age


In my work as a clinical psychologist, I’ve noticed that older people get a tough time in our society – especially women!  Over and over older people are portrayed in photographs and media as insipid, stupid and deferential, unable to carry a conversation except with small children.

This depiction is contemptuous and deeply prejudicial.  Yet, there are three significant reasons it occurs that need to be addressed. 

Firstly, it happens because appearance (especially youthful) is over-valued as an attribute and everyone ages over time.  However, appearance is tremendously over-valued in women who are often socialised to regard their ‘unblemished’ appearance as the most important part of their overall identity.  As a result, when their youthful looks fade, they feel ‘invisible’ like they have been placed on the scrapheap.    

Secondly, in times of rapid change in society, there is more value placed on innovative skills (like knowledge of technology) and these skills are more easily picked up when you have been exposed to them from childhood.  It is easy for older people to feel out of their depth, become discouraged and then turn away from these new skills that would otherwise keep them relevant and connected to society.

Thirdly, older people have been placed in such restrictive and banal categories that many behave in the expected deferential and insipid manner to which we have all become accustomed.  In the process they often quit work too early, take endless cruises, run out of relevance, drink too much, pickle their brains, get boring and lose their dignity (usually in that order!)

Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way.  But it will only change if older people insist on a different portrayal of themselves – and this (in part) involves older people behaving differently internally: with more dignity, vibrancy and self-respect.

For example, older people need to stop over-valuing physical appearance in themselves, especially women.  Forget appearance-enhancing surgery and stiletto heels.  These so called ‘solutions’ are just silly.  How can anyone expect to be taken seriously without facial lines?

If we don’t change this emphasis, we inevitably set ourselves up for failure as we naturally age.  Instead, love your lines and craggy skin and value your increased ‘vitality’ attained through depth of skills and confidence.  Exude dignity and command respect.  Value yourself as a whole person – not as some ridiculous, brainless barbie doll.

In other words, put your own appearance last on your list and instead bring your attentional focus to other much more important attributes (especially leadership ones) that are all based on years of experience. 

Things like having excellent judgement, huge depth of knowledge in your fields of expertise, great communication skills, being highly strategic, having insight and wisdom and being able to see far enough beyond your own ego so that you can ‘bring others with you’ and extend them true generosity, empathy, kindness, warmth and cooperation. 

You might also want to consider other ‘mature’ skills crucial to good leadership, like exuding serious mental toughness, independence of thought, open-mindedness, willingness to reflect and listen and the capacity to assert and persuade.  Be no-one’s fool!  These skills are all highly complex and require many decades of training, so these are precisely the sorts of skills in which older people can really hold their own and expect to excel.

Older people must also commit far more time and attentional focus to staying abreast of innovative technologies (even if they are intimidating!) that can only enhance and amplify their myriad of skills that come from years of experience.  

Don’t let yourself become irrelevant would be my advice.  Keep working as long as you can (even if you reduce your hours) and stay actively engaged in future technologies. 

This way, you will keep some economic power (ongoing income as well as assets) and you are more likely to build up-to-date skills in new technologies. 

Once you put together your breadth of experience (good judgement, wisdom, insight, strategy, empathy, great communication and the huge ‘vitality’ that arises from this depth of knowledge) plus your new skills in technology and innovation then you are likely to remain highly relevant and in-demand (and maybe even revered!) no matter what your age.