Deep Aging: I'm Not In Denial ... I'm Just Not Growing Old!

Editor's Note: Cohousers interested in tackling the issues around Deep Aging (TM), aging in place in community and all the attendant co-care issues are beginning a national conversation to address these challenges. For more information contact: Ann Zabaldo

Old age, another final frontier: and just like deep space, it is dark and unknown.

In the last few decades I have watched my grandparents, aunts, mother in law, a few peers, and dozens of hospice patients age and die. I've always had friends who are much older, and in our talks over the years they share what getting older feels like, their various physical challenges, and how they are thinking about the end of life. Some cope with humor, some with different flavors of denial, some with an interesting assortment of approach and avoidance. I had been working in the well-being field, and when I applied well-being concepts to my interest in aging, I landed in cohousing.

A cohousing community could be a perfect forum for support and exploration during aging. Through a great convergence of interests and opportunities, I am now a (much older than usual) student in a graduate program in Applied Gerontology, studying with a major senior cohousing researcher.

I have been thinking a lot about aging lately, especially the really old years. In Gerontology class we discuss three stages of old age:
young-old, about ages 55-65 (even called “late middle age” or “go-go” by some);
middle-old, about ages 65-75 or 80 (or “slow-go”); and
old-old, ages above 80 or 85 until death (or “no-go”.)

In our youth-obsessed culture, the old-old years are often collapsed into stereotypes of physical ailments, meaninglessness and irrelevance, and there seems to be little about it that is appealing. In the interest of full disclosure, some aspects of old-old age are difficult, physically and emotionally: people important to you die, you are not able to do as much as you used to, and your body is deteriorating. Still, when approached with acceptance and curiosity, the last part of life can be as rich and rewarding as the earlier years, in a different way.

I now propose the term “Deep Aging” (TM) to describe the period of life between the beginning of old-old age and death. Deep Aging (TM) implies depth, exploration, meaning, insight, courage and subtlety, none of which is guaranteed simply by the passage of years. It conveys a life task to age deeply and meaningfully, and challenges us to pay attention and plumb its depths.

My biology professor spent an entire course describing “normal age-related changes” in physical functioning. By age 80, the average person will have a reduction in maximal breathing capacity of about 55%. We will experience about a 40% reduction in kidney function. Our mitochondria (you remember from high school biology, the “powerhouse of the cell,”) will have reduced by 15%, meaning the body simply produces less energy. Collagen will degrade over time, resulting in increased stiffness. Cartilage thins, muscle mass and bone mass decrease.

All of these are normal age-related changes. There are always outliers: the 90 year old who swims the English Channel, the 82 year old ballerina, the 85 year old who runs competitively. But most of us experience normal age-related changes right on schedule. An optimal diet, optimal exercise, optimal genes, optimal environment and optimal lifestyle are beneficial for a whole host of reasons. But aging will still occur, if you are lucky enough to live into your older years, and eventually you will die.

And death? Ninety percent (90%) us will die from a predictable chronic illness such as heart disease, cancer, organ failure, or dementia. These deaths take time, maybe years, and the effects of illness are on top of the normal age-related changes that are also underway. So, exceptional as we all want to be, there is a good chance that we will need a plan for managing our old-old years, with or without chronic illness.

Now for the good news: in cohousing, experiencing this life stage together with peers creates conditions to magnify the richness of aging, especially in the very advanced years. Even in cohousing people say “I'm not old!” or think because they have a co-care agreement with neighbors that they will be protected from the perils of aging. We have seen cohousers die at home as they intended, but other long-term cohousers leave the community to move to assisted living or a nursing home because their needs exceeded what they were able to manage, for different reasons.

We have an opportunity in cohousing to explore Deep Aging (TM) with the courage and innovation that brought us to cohousing in the first place, and make our communities liveable into our old-old years. Some communities are actively discussing end of life issues, and some are finding ways to make their intergenerational community more age-friendly. With openness and creative thinking, cohousers can figure out how to make aging in place in community a reality for our members.

Nancy Francis is currently a late-middle-aged student in University of North Carolina Wilmington's Masters of Applied Gerontology program, building on her earlier-in-life Masters in Eastern Studies and Comparative Psych and is also a licensed attorney, which seemed like a good idea at the time. She lives with her family in North Carolina.