Mirror, mirror on the wall …
Our culture has changed in recent years. The focus has turned to looking youthful and trendy.
Many people in our community post their images and activities on social media and measure their worth by how many “likes” or comments they receive. Younger generations are looking and even behaving like celebrities with selfies now de rigeur.
I recently was asked to speak to a group of Year 8 and 9 students on the topic of Understanding and Managing Bullying.
During question time, I asked them how they saw themselves and what they wanted. I was shocked when a large number said they just wanted to be famous.
They wanted celebrity status and would do anything to get it. They also said that measuring up to social media standards frequently produced anxiety.
Girls spent a lot of time watching YouTube videos about makeup and fashion and the boys were fixated on sport. Both seemed to have a strong focus on body image.
We live in a culture with an emphasis on meeting individual needs. Stereotypes of youth, beauty and celebrity are championed. Those who don’t live up to the stereotype are not as likely to be seen or valued as an individual.
In contrast, the over 55s come from a culture where family and community contribution and building a future for others and our country were the major values and activities.
To test this, I have asked many people over 55, how they see themselves and how they think others react or respond to them because of their age.
I wanted to know what they were doing to keep the fires of interest burning in their lives.
The group ranged from those with a public profile to the ordinary people who, like most of us, are simply getting on with the job, travelling, volunteering or participating in social or activity groups.
Veteran radio broadcaster John Knox, who soon turns 79, said that a few years ago, he walked into his school reunion and saw a lot of old people. He then realised that he was one of them.
Knox’s perception of himself is not unusual.
There are times in our lives when we feel better than how we think we look, and there are times when the image that we see tells a story of illness, sadness or grief.
As we age, whether we see ourselves in the mirror or a photograph, there is often a gap between what we see and how we feel about what we see.
Asked how he saw himself, Knox replied, “I see an aging body, but inside I still feel young and energetic”.
He has recently retired from radio, but still works part-time flying planes. He got his pilot’s licence in 1973.
His attitude is positive and his lifestyle includes daily swimming and walking. He says he was inspired by Sir Frank Moore of Brisbane radio fame.
As a young man, Knox worked for Sir Frank in Longreach and then followed him to Brisbane during the heady days of Colour Radio 4IP, led by Sir Frank.
Radio 4IP was heavily invested in community activities.
“Sir Frank’s immense confidence and determination had an effect on my life. It still does,” Knox says.
His own radio career spanned 50 years. Today, he is a great advocate of approaching the latter years with energy and determination.
David Greenwood, one of the “Good Guys” from the early days of 4IP in the late 1960s and early 1970s, is still working as general manager of a cluster of regional radio stations in Queensland.
Also mentored by Sir Frank, he believes that work keeps him going and says that if he couldn’t work, he would need to find something else to keep his mind active.
“I started work when I was in my mid-teens. Sir Frank taught me the value of hard work. In some ways he was extremely tough, but he modelled to us that striving for excellence and having good people around you were two very important factors,” he says.
Both men agreed that the skills and experience of older people are no longer valued.
I recently heard a 40-something media personality discussing the dilemma that she and her friends faced – whether or not to have Botox.
She discussed the pressure she was putting herself under to conform to how we are “supposed” to look.
Myra Timmerman, at 82 is more energetic and sprightly than many others her junior.
She has been teaching yoga for 40 years and still presents four classes a week.
Her U3A class numbers are huge, made up of both women and men over 55.
Myra says she feels confident in herself, knowing that what she does is the best for her. She also gains great satisfaction from knowing that she is offering something to others that affects their strength and flexibility.
“I have noticed that people of all ages, in their 60s, 70s and even 80s, who come to yoga classes change their demeanor. They take responsibility for their bodies and become more physically comfortable,” she says.
Asked how she thought most women of that age bracket see themselves, she says there is generally a strong lack of acceptance and appreciation of the body as it ages.
“When I look at myself, I remember how lucky I am to be alive, still planning, working and travelling,” Myra says. “I enjoy everything that I do.”
At the Buderim Men’s shed, I was surprised to hear how men saw themselves.
Many believe that most people see older men as irrelevant. Others see age as a messenger, letting them know they might not always be capable.
One man told of how he had been in a coffee shop and was about to carry his coffee to the table when a younger customer took the cup from him and placed it on a table.
Rather than appreciating the kindness, he felt resentment because it indicated he was being seen and treated as someone who was old and therefore incapable.
Another was more positive, saying he had appreciated it when he was using a walking aid and people had stood back for him to pass.
Most of the men said that they felt younger than they looked.
“If we worried about physical deterioration, it would destroy our ability to enjoy the now,” Angus Ross said.
Research has suggested that many men have difficulty in retirement and develop an illness or die within 18 months of quitting work.
After a life of structure and achievement, life lacked many of the positive validations they knew.
In the same study, it was suggested that women coped with retirement differently. They handled retirement more positively and had more ability to handle complexity.
More women were involved in volunteer work where they enjoyed social interaction; and women had a more active role in extended family dynamics.
Vicky, who works in a shoe shop, came up with one of the best answers to my question, “how do you see yourself?”.
“When I look in the mirror, I see wisdom. I see a face and a body that has moved through time, learning from the good and bad stuff,” she said.
When we look in the mirror, we evaluate our standard of “OK-ness” in life. This feeling comes from three sources –achievements, interactions with significant others and self-acceptance, or how we acknowledge who we are.
With regard to how we see ourselves and how others see us, there is a tendency, as we grow older, to step back and to stop contributing to society.
Three questions that could or should be asked are:
• What is happening to our culture and communities and the values and attitudes that are emerging ?
• If we consider that individualism and superficial standards and activities in our culture and communities might be detrimental to younger ones and their wellbeing, are we, as potential older mentors, prepared to take a stand, comment or mentor?
• Are we prepared to personally honour and celebrate the changes in the way we see and value ourselves?
Current culture seems to value mentors who are “someone” or celebrities rather than people who have achieved and can pass on knowledge, skills and experience.
Maybe, instead of stepping back from life, we could be still make a difference.