How to age powerfully—and what that means

Dr Siobhan O'Dwyer

By Dr Siobhan O’Dwyer, Centre for Health Practice Innovation, Menzies Health Institute Queensland.

My grandfather had a long name: Wilbur Vivian Maxwell Gericke. Rather than being a burden, the four names gave him options. Among friends, he was Max. To his optometrist, he was Wil. And when he called talkback radio, he was Vivian. He also had a long life—dying at 96 with nothing more than aspirin in his medicine cabinet.

Max was an outlier—most of his contemporaries died in their 60s and 70s—but as our population ages, more and more of us will live into our 90s and beyond. But what will those extra years look like? Will they be happy, healthy, independent years? Or will they be plagued by disease, disability, decline and dementia? And how can we change the course of our own ageing?

It was my relationship with my grandfather that really inspired me to become a gerontologist—and start asking these questions in a more systematic way.

My research focuses on people with dementia, and the wellbeing of their carers. No one wants to talk about suicide or dementia over cocktails, but as a society we really need to start the conversation. We cannot age powerfully if we aren’t prepared to have open, honest conversations about the more challenging aspects of getting older–illness, care, dying, and death.

In the academic world we often talk about ageing well or productive ageing and the media often talks about ageing gracefully, but I came across the idea of powerful ageing when I was a guest on Adam Holcroft’s podcast, The Dojo of Powerful Ageing.

The problem with the terms “ageing well” and “ageing productively” is that they can exclude a lot of people and be used to justify a lack of government investment, because they imply that an inability to age well or productively is a personal failure, not a social one.

This approach completely ignores the fact that your health conditions or your lack of employment may be completely out of your control, not to mention the fact that you may have spent the last 50 years working, paying taxes and raising children (ie being productive). It also ignores your right to not be productive.

And the problem with “ageing gracefully” is that it’s almost always used to describe women who are doing everything they possibly can to mask the fact that they are ageing!

Ageing powerfully on the other hand is—at least to my mind—about having choice, having autonomy and dignity, having a voice (both socially and politically), and having access to a safety net of social support if you need it.

The right to do what they please

As a society we need to recognise that by the time most people reach their 70s and 80s they have made an incredible contribution to our society and have earned the right to do whatever (and look however) they damn well please!

If you want to age powerfully, it’s important to understand that the benefits of exercise, nutrition and good mental health only come from years of consistent effort. And with research now suggesting that the biological changes underpinning Alzheimer’s disease start as long as 30 years before the onset of symptoms, it’s never too early to start thinking about the life you want when you’re 70.

Don’t wait until you’re 50 to start taking care of your health or your finances or getting your affairs in order. Start now—whether you’re 25, 30, or 40 there are things you can do now to make sure that, as much as possible, you’re in control of what your later life will look like.

In particular, you can agitate and advocate for the change you want. Don’t want to end up in a nursing home? Get politically active about the state of nursing homes now!

Want to be treated with dignity and respect when you’re 70? Call out age discrimination now—whether it’s on the bus, in the workplace, or in Parliament House—and donate to organisations like Carers Australia, Alzheimer’s Australia and COTA who fight for older adults every day.

Oh. And use a condom. Sex might keep you young, but rates of sexually transmitted infections among older adults are booming and there’s nothing powerful about ageing with an STI.

My grandfather built furniture and grew orchids, he read poetry and played the organ, he enjoyed cricket and world politics, and he didn’t speak unless there was something important to be said. He exercised regularly, ate well, drank in moderation and didn’t smoke. He took care of his teeth, saw his GP regularly and sought treatment for depression.

He stayed engaged, both cognitively and socially. He saved money, made a will, and had an enduring power of attorney. He had conversations with his family about his preferences for end-of-life care and cremation, and he was prepared to care and be cared for.

With the exception of not eating green vegetables, everything Max did is backed up by the science. And given that he died in his own home with all his marbles (and teeth!), I think the results speak for themselves.

Of course, there are no guarantees in life. Ageing is a crapshoot—you might do everything Max did and still get cancer or dementia. It’s also an uphill battle for Aboriginal Australians and other groups who face systemic and intergenerational disadvantage. But it is possible to load the dice in your favour.



For more reading on health, research and ageing, Siobhan recommends:

Dr Siobhan O’Dwyer is a Research Fellow at Griffith University. Her research on suicide risk in family carers of people with dementia was a world-first and her study of homicidal ideation in family carers has been described as “landmark research.” She is passionate about community and media engagement and ensuring that research is translated into better practice and meaningful policy. Read more about her work and reflections on her blog.

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