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Creativity Matters: The Arts and Aging Toolkit
photo of two men and three women dancing (Kairos)
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1.1: Describing Normal Aging

Aging is a progressive and cumulative process of change occurring throughout our lives and affected by many factors. Learning to walk as a toddler is an example of an age-related change. We perceive these changes as negative only as we grow older.

Most theories of aging have a common theme: It’s in your genes. Another major factor is everyday wear and tear. While there is no one simple explanation, aging is affected by intrinsic factors, such as heredity and age-related changes, and extrinsic factors, such as environment, disease, and lifestyle.

We do slow down as we get older, but our ability to function isn’t necessarily affected. And each of us ages at a different rate. In the absence of disease, many limiting effects of normal aging are often not even felt until sometime after age 75. Even then, an older adult can adapt his or her normal routine to accommodate these physical-biological and social-emotional changes.

The Language of Aging

We use a variety of terms when referring to the large and diverse demographic of people who are older, including:

old
young-old
old-old
emerging elder
elder
senior
retiree
institutionalized
community-dwelling
older adult
well elder
older adult with dementia
frail elder

Notice that our choice of words often suggests disability. It’s important to focus instead on ability, which is not necessarily related to age or mental capacity. An 80-year-old woman with dementia who uses a walker and lives in a long-term care facility moves her hand to the music. A 65-year-old man waltzes once a week at the senior center. They are both dancing.

Reality vs. Myth

Emphasizing ability instead of disability represents an evolution in attitude about what it means to be old. Thirty years ago, older adults were seen primarily in terms of their diseases. In a shift from a deficit model to an asset model—from looking at older people as medical objects to seeing all their vitality and wisdom—we have acknowledged that no matter how frail or cognitively fit, they have something to contribute.

Older adults’ assets include:

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