Growing better gracefully

Disrupt Aging serves as a battle cry in a new era of aging

click to enlarge Disrupt Aging: a Bold New Path to Living your Best Life at Any Age, by Jo Ann Jenkins with Boe Workman. Public Affairs: 2016, 237 pages.
Disrupt Aging: a Bold New Path to Living your Best Life at Any Age, by Jo Ann Jenkins with Boe Workman. Public Affairs: 2016, 237 pages.
Disrupt Aging: a Bold New Path to Living your Best Life at Any Age, by Jo Ann Jenkins with Boe Workman. Public Affairs: 2016, 237 pages.

“At 50, I began to know who I was. It was like waking up to myself.” –Maya Angelou

Disrupt Aging serves as both a declaration of middle-aged and senior vitality and an exhortation to do more. Jo Ann Jenkins, the new (and first female) CEO of AARP, asserts that seniors are more active and ubiquitous than ever before, and it is time to start taking them seriously. At the same time, she laments that many are passive and ill-prepared for their next chapter in life. To that end, she has an ambitious to-do list for those who have reached their 50th birthday, whether recently or not. It’s empowering.

Topping her agenda is changing our mindset about aging. Americans’ life expectancy in 1900 was 47. Today it is 78.  Why should we then have the same concept of aging as people did in generations past? If many of us will be living into our 80s and 90s, we must, she argues, take the wheel and make the adjustments and plans we need to in order to thrive and not decline. Steer with precision, if you will, rather than finding the off-ramp. Don’t define yourself by degrees of what you used to be, but embrace who you are and what you need now. Don’t try to stay forever young, give yourself more credit than that. Your experience matters. Stay vital and own your age. This sense of honest empowerment will help you to fight for the things you need to live well. And if you’re not sure what those things are, Jenkins has some ideas.

First, design your life. Developmental psychologist Eric Erikson defined each period of life by a series of conflicts that must be resolved. At age 65 and beyond, we struggle with ego integrity vs. despair. This comes to mind as Jenkins asserts the necessity of finding and defining your reason for living. Thomas Jefferson wasn’t talking about blissful afternoons in a hammock when he declared our right to the pursuit of happiness, she says. He meant contributing to the greater good by participating fully in your community. Finding meaning and purpose as we age is vital – embrace transitions and bring all of your life experience with you. Though age was once viewed as the ‘residue of youth,’ now it is a new frontier.

Jenkins also urges readers to take charge of their health, noting that 60 percent of health quality is due to day-to-day decisions; the other 40 percent is made up of genetics (20 percent) and medical care we receive (20 percent).

In 1978, Stanford professor Dr. James Fries came up with the “compression of morbidity” theory – the idea that we can delay the decline that comes with old age through preventive measures and lifestyle changes. Though our current health care system is focused on “sick care,” we can be proactive about our health by taking a holistic view, looking after our mental, emotional, economic, social and spiritual – as well as physical – well-being. She speaks to the need for a culture of preventive measures and rightly laments the fact that there is no money in prevention, but is optimistic that innovations in science and technology will allow the culture to change to one of wellness and vitality.

The awkward subject of senior residences is taken on in a new way, with Jenkins exhorting seniors to be proactive and creative about planning where they will live. She says seniors want “livable communities” with appropriate, affordable housing, supportive services, good transportation options and engaging social options. She cites innovative communities such as Hope Meadows in Rantoul, where a former Air Force base was transformed into a neighborhood where families with foster children could all live near and support each other. In the remainder of the large space, seniors get below-market-rate housing in exchange for volunteering in the community.

As far as the bugaboo of financing retirement, we need to change the conversation if we want to get serious about socking money away.  (When you finish the book, bookmark this chapter for the 20- and 30-somethings in your life.) Instead of setting aside money for the abstract idea of “retirement,” what if we get specific about the things that we’ve always wanted to do? She suggests picturing your unique future by asking yourself: A)Who will change my light bulbs? B)How will I get an ice cream cone? And 3) Who will I have lunch with? These mundane scenarios force you to get real about maintaining your own home, getting around and maintaining social connections – and the specificity may just motivate you to save. Interactive exercises at the end of the book are included to help readers get started with their own disruption of aging.

Jenkins is a staunch advocate for seniors, almost to a fault. One could argue that her sweeping generalizations about the capabilities, even superiority of seniors to other age groups (“we are better collaborators… than younger workers”) is a little reductive. At times her cheerleading for the great things that AARP does also feels like PR for the organization. But if you can suspend your skepticism when needed, Disrupt Aging offers many novel ideas for living your best life beyond retirement.

Contact Ann Farrar at

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