By Natalie Missakian
Recently, while Tia Murphy was “trotting up the sides of hills” searching for rare birds, a 20-something in her bird-watching group complimented her for keeping up.
“I said, ‘Why do you think I shouldn’t be?’ ” Murphy, 63, of Bethel, recalled.
Murphy said the remark was well intentioned—the woman has since become one of her good “birding buddies”—but it highlights the type of attitude she wants to change as a volunteer for Disprupt Aging, a project of AARP Connecticut and Madison-based Borrow My Glasses, which provides program design, consulting and training on aging issues and caregiving.
The initiative comes from AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins’ book of the same name, which encourages people to redefine what it means to grow older.
“People put in their minds, ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘People my age shouldn’t do this,’ ’’ said Murphy, a retired cable company executive. “What we’re trying to do is break that stereotype, both for older adults and for young people thinking about aging in the future.”
Volunteers have spent the past year leading conversations about the topic. Sessions have been held in senior living facilities, community centers and universities across the state.
The next phase focuses on industry and business perspectives. It will be featured on Oct. 17 at the TEARS (Timely Elder Abuse Resource Services) annual conference at the Toyota Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford, sponsored by the Agency on Aging of South Central Connecticut. The conference will include more than 500 businesses and organizations that work with older adults. It is free and open to the public. Register at aoascc.org/forms/tearsregistration.
Trained AARP volunteers have been leading discussions, sharing videos and their own take on aging with multigenerational audiences, said Erica Michalowski, AARP Connecticut community outreach director.
The conversation will be brought to high schools and colleges in 2018.
“Having a 20-year-old and an 80-year-old in a room, they’re going to show each other different perspectives,” Michalowski said.
Those involved with the project say the dialogue is crucial. As boomers live and work longer, more people will be interacting with older adults, regardless of their profession, said Donna Fedus, a gerontologist and founder of Borrow My Glasses.
Yet misconceptions about aging persist. Citing a 2009 Pew Research Center survey, Fedus said many difficulties young people expect to face when they age are not reality for most older Americans.
For example, while 42 percent of 18-to-64-year-olds surveyed expected to have a serious health problem as they got older, just 21 percent of respondents 65 and older reported experiencing a serious illness.
Nearly half of the younger group thought they would be unable to drive as an older adult, but 86 percent of the 65- and-older participants said they were still driving.
Fedus said research shows negative thinking about aging can shorten a person’s life span by 7.5 years, so changing attitudes is a key to a longer, healthier aging.
“I think people assume as you get older it’s a nosedive to the end of your life,” she said. “But for many, many people it’s a period of unexpected growth and happiness.”
Murphy tells groups that she has always looked forward to getting older. She said she received life-threatening injuries in a car crash as a teenager and wasn’t expected to live past 21.
“I always tell people I’m going to live to 93 or 94,” she said. “No one in my family has lived that long so you know what? I’m going to do it.”
To request a conversation in your community, contact Michalowski at 860-548-3163 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Natalie Missakian is a writer living in Cheshire, Conn.