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The 60-Plus Population: Living History

Carolyn Anderson

Been There? Done That? Then go there and do some more. It is never too late to be what you could have been. - George Eliot

It has occurred to me lately that North American society does not honor age and experience to the degree that it should. I am a busy cataract surgeon and by the nature of the specialty, I see thousands of patients a year over the age of 60. I love working with this patient population and consider them living history. They have so much wisdom and experience to offer others in the community. If only we would see it, if only we would honor it, if only we would tap into it. I feel the population between the ages of 60 and 100 is the most untapped resource in society. If we followed the lead of other areas in the world that revere their elders and honor their wisdom we would gain vast amounts of insight and knowledge to tackle many of the issues that currently challenge humanity.

Richard Branson, creator of the Virgin Empire, billionaire philanthropist and extreme adventure enthusiast seems to have an appreciation for this experienced population. Although he is only in his 50s, instead of slowing down as he gets older, the world's most hyper entrepreneur is still revving on high speed -- and he's bringing along a clutch of world-famous seniors with him. Realizing that people over 60 have something to contribute, Branson has gathered a group of experienced (a nice way of saying older) individuals called "the elders" to launch diplomatic assaults on the globe's most intractable problems. Among others, the group includes the retired Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu (age 77), former U.S. president Jimmy Carter (age 84), the retired United Nations secretary General Kofi Annan (age 70), and human-rights activist and former president of Ireland Mary Robinson (age 64). These mild-mannered public figures may be slower than a speeding bullet, but they're still prepared to fight a never-ending battle for justice and truth.

Unfortunately aging gets such a bad rap in our society that most people believe that once you hit 65, you might as well just collect your pension (if it hasn't mysteriously disappeared while you were still working), curl up with your cat and serenely await your impending exit from life.

But before you load up on catnip, consider this: youth culture is propagated by the youth. You know all of those "forever young" ads, TV shows, movies and video games directed at teens? They're made by 20- and 30-somethings who, after a decade or so in the real world, want nothing more than to return to their begoogled version of high school glory days. In contrast, most people over 60 are pretty happy with the forward direction of their age. In fact, according to a 2000 study by The National Council on Aging (NCOA), nearly half of Americans age 65 and older describe the present as the best years of their lives. A full 84 percent of those polled say they would be happy if they lived to be 90 years old.

Maybe it takes the wisdom of age to realize that there is no scientifically-based reason to believe that we "become old" in our mid-sixties. The reason 65 is often used to define "old age" is not because we go through some biological degenerative metamorphosis in our sixth decade, but because the authors of the Social Security Act in 1935 had to pick an age for people to receive Social Security benefits and life expectancy hovered in the low sixties in those days ( Social Security was never a nest egg to bank on). The unfortunate side effect is that age 65 has been used to define "senior citizens" ever since.

So can we expect happiness and success after age 60? In my practice of more than 17,000 patients over the magic age, I can safely say yes. Consider this: Winston Churchill became prime minister of Great Britain when he was 64. If he had lived only to be 63, he would have been an unknown. So growing older does not mean an automatic decline in mental abilities, creative abilities or physical abilities. Bill George in his book True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership (J-B Warren Bennis Series) refers to age 60 to 90 as Phase III or the Giving Back phase. He states that "the last 30 years of a leader's life can be the most productive and rewarding of all".

I call it "The Unretirement," a time in your life when you can stretch yourself and explore life to the fullest as long as you are alive -- and according to the stats, that will probably be for quite some time. If you go by United Nations population projections, close to 1 in 20 American boomers are expected to live to 100, thanks to breakthroughs in treatments for heart disease and cancer, lives relatively free of hard labor, the availability of cheap red wine and memberships at the gym. Those centenarians may not even be the most senior members of society, either -- the National Institute on Aging predicts that the boomers will be adding a growing number of people 110 and older, or super centenarians to their MySpace friends list.

But just in case you are beginning to feel your age, think of the sages through the ages to inspire you. There are examples of experienced people doing amazing things everywhere.

Dr. Carolyn Anderson is an ophthalmic surgeon in British Columbia. She is currently working on her first book entitled "The Unretirement" that focuses on motivating and inspiring the experienced population to realize the amazing gifts they have to offer society.

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