Age: Choices for Being-in-the-World


Anthony J. Marsella, Ph.D. – TRANSCEND Media Service

Every age is an opportunity for being-in-the-world – a chance for choices! It is possible to experience life, and to respond to life, from the vantage point of different ages. There are many ages! Some are objective (i.e., quantifiable, legal), and some are subjective (i.e., private, perception, personal, psychological). We need to recognize the full range of age choices to avoid stereotypes and categorical conclusions. This does not mean unique circumstances are unimportant. Obviously, physical and mental limitations and disabilities impose constraints. These cannot be denied, but they can be interpreted and experience according to our perceptions. In these instances, a critical issue becomes our capacity to acquire new skill sets, and/or to live according to various the nuances of various “ages.” How old do you feel? Tell me what you are doing? How do you see you see yourself? Different self-perceived ages offer choices for being-in-the-world?


Ageing is a major challenge for health care systems in our nation and around the world. The endless focus in our culture on “youth” — for purposes of marketing and consumerism — denies the reality of ageing for everyone, and neglects the requirements for support and care. Disorders of affluence and disorders of deprivation are confronting all societies with serious policy decisions. Chronological age can no longer be the arbiter of what needs to be considered. Young and old — chronologically – need to grasp “age” neither implies function, capability, or talent. Age does not seal “value” for society.

Under the best of conditions, the value of all members of a society would be recognized and acknowledged. Care would be taken to provide continuities across different chronological ages as transitions in roles and contributions, but with a deliberate focus on individual variation. A serious challenge facing our nation and the world today is that individuals exceeding certain chronological markers – “retirees, post-65, elderly” –– are assigned to a collective group designated as having no further value because of economic cost/benefit analyses.

The term “disposable people” is emerging as we face global crises in health care costs. How tragic! This must not be the arbiter! Ageism is serious problem. There are prejudices against the elderly in a world infatuated with youth, especially if there is money to be made. We become obsessed with youth as the ideal! Stay young! Like other “isms” — racism, sexism, alcoholism, ethnocentrism – there are direct and indirect biases regarding ageing keeping us rooted to injustice.

Before I share some alternative ages — ways of being-in-the- world – I wish to point out “cultural” and “national” variations. Obviously, the culture we live in may seal certain statuses, roles, and functions for various age groups. There are, or used to be, cultures prizing and valuing “older” people, rendering them respect and admiration.

At one point, this was true for Japan. However, everything I read indicates that the break-up of the extended family across the word has resulted in many abandoned elderly – and many elderly suicides. The harsh realities of chronological age, amidst emerging social formations imposed by hegemonic globalization, are fostering human tragedies. To believe one is needed, admired, and loved is important for a sense of worth, dignity, and value. That’s true for all ages.

Potential Ages: A Spectrum of Possibilities

Consider “age” as a marker for function or ways-of-being in the world. I am ——— years old!   What does this mean? What does the statement mean for you? What does it mean for others? Now, consider the spectrum of possible ages, regardless of chronological age:

  • Chronological Age: Refers to the date of your birth. For example, 73 years old. Can’t change that one — legally! Some cultures even begin your chronological age with the point of estimated conception. If you wish, you can add nine months to your age within this approach. Of course, if you were born prematurely, add less than nine months.
  • Medical-Condition Age:Refers to your medical or health condition. The typical phrase we hear uttered: She is 73, but her health is like that of a 50 year women. Unfortunately, her husband has the health of a 90 year old.”Medical age is difficult to assess since there may be certain conditions (e.g., heart disease that is managed) even as everything else is healthy and functional.
  • Technology-Literacy Age:   Refers to your ability to understand, and to navigate the new information and communication technologies, especially the electronic equipment (e.g., I-Phone), and the various social media connections (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin). For example, do you still use a slide rule or abacus? If so, you can be assured of several consequences: (1) You are happy and less stressed; (2) You are exposed to fewer electronic signal waves problems (e.g., EMR); and (3) You cannot be considered a Nerd.
  • Wisdom Age:   Refers to the ability or capacity to use your knowledge in ways that advance both one’s personal life and the human condition. Typically, this involves sharing “philosophical” and/or existential” insights rooted in your lived human experience. Wisdom is not always easily recognized by others — especially the younger generations who feel they now all there is to know to get by at this time in their life. What a loss for them. So much to be gained from asking questions and hearing anecdotes from someone older.

“Life gives you the test first, and tells you what you should have studied for afterwards.”   Older people can tell you what you need to study and prepare for; they can you help you pass the test. Remember the old Amish saying: “We grow too soon oldt, and too late smart!

  • Physical-Appearance Age:Refers to whether or not your physical appearance — especially facial and body features and attractiveness – is commensurate with your chronological age. This, of course, is based on the assumption everyone ages in accord with their age, independent of life experiences, genes, diet, and access to vitamins and blenders. Plastic surgery and various health-promotion techniques have made it possible to appear one age, while being another chronologically another age.

Unfortunately, the pursuit of a younger physical appearance has become an addiction for some. Joan Rivers, that marvelous example of medical and financial resources, asks “Am I smiling?”  She cannot tell because scores of plastic surgery operations have destroyed her facial nerves. I suspect she has had surgery on other locations? If so, what does she ask when they are displayed to someone? I can only imagine! “Is it working? I can’t feel it? How does the tattoo look?”

  • Legal Age:  Refers to ages associated with certain rights, privileges, and categorical or status opportunities or limitations. For example, whether we qualify for elderly discounts, tax credits, and retirement benefits according to the law. Medicare is a legal age requirement. Let us remember, however, the law does not guarantee justice. They are not commensurate.
  • Citizen Age: Refers to active participation in meeting your civil responsibilities and duties, including being informed of current events, and choosing to respond in non-violent ways when one disagrees. Unfortunately, globalization has brought us to the point of having to participate in a “global community,” rather than a neighborhood newspaper letter-writing campaign. Well, let me change that: The key is participation at any level. Just try to make a difference! Advance the human condition, when possible!
  • Life-Function Skills:Refers to the skill levels associated with meeting and mastering functional daily demands. In so many ways, these appear simple, but the reality of the matter is that regardless of age and/or gender, many of these functional skills and talents are a problem regardless of age. Ask yourself: Can you: cook, wash and dry clothes, clean house, drive, shop, bank, maintain personal hygiene and medical care, and manage wealth and income? These are but a few of the functional skills too often assigned to limitations for the elderly. Yet, as we are now witnessing, there are many forty years olds who lack these skill sets, albeit that they know how to tweet and text.J
  • Sexual/Sensual Age:Refers to the ability or capacity to engage in sexual relations. The problem is the difference between sexuality and sensuality. For example, while erectile dysfunction for me often emerges in middle-age (notwithstanding the various pills and injections used to restore or enhance erections), this does not mean sexual relations is now an age function. Sexual relations can assume many forms and activities beyond penetration. And for women, the drying of the vaginal canal fluids is no more a marker of sexual age than the male erection. While intercourse is a marker, it is not the only marker, and indeed, could prove a problem because a score of related problems: pain, pre-mature ejaculation, absence of climax, tactile insensitivities.

Although there are obvious moments when sexual relations are simply driven by a passionate rush, denying all other concerns — the f _ _ _ me moment– when pleasure leaves one breathless, and in need of a cigarette or oxygen – it may be important to consider sexual age as function of “making love” — slowly, intentionally (not reflexively), caring for a partner’s presence in the moment, and experiencing a joy of connection. Is it possible to have a spiritual climax? Feeling love toward a partner can blanket the moment in bliss. Try to tell that to an eighteen year old male, whose roaring hormones keep him captive to ejaculation at any cost and in a nano-second. Been there, done that! Who is in charge here? Testosterone! Try love!

  • Spiritual Age:   Refers to your ability to understand we are not separate beings, but rather, we are connected to each other and to all of the life about us. This connection requires awe and reference for the unknown; it goes beyond religious dogma, creeds, and doctrines. Spirituality is a way of being in the world. It defies any “age” type. It reflects a consciousness of self existing within the larger cosmos about us. Spirituality is awe, reverence, humility, and connection to life itself in its endless forms and purposes.
  • Creativity Age:   Refers to your capacity for understanding “creativity” is present in each action we engage in — be it cooking, conversation, dressing, shopping, parenting, or walking. It is not limited to the creative arts (e.g., poetry, painting, dancing, singing, or driving). Creativity age is about bringing your personal presence to all you do. Every act is creative when it reflects “who” you are — something unique and distinctly you. Remember: There will only be one of you ever in history! Do things with your style! Even cookie recipes leave space for additions or deletions — “a little bit of this, a little bit of that.”

“Ages” are Not Redundant

Okay! I am a shrink – a retired clinical psychologist and professor. I invite you to take a look at the above “ages,” and ask yourself, “Where am I at this point in my life?” I do not support the phrase, “You are as young as you feel,” as the best response. It invites delusional biases if not contextualized. The situation is complex! Attitude is important! Behavior intention is important! Behavior is important! “Youngness,” is not a good arbiter! Other things must be considered in any appraisal.

The reality of the matter is that we need to consider the possibility of different objective and subjective ages – the nuances of any age! When we do, many younger chronological ages can be considered “burdens” to society because they fail to contribute. The point I am making, is: “Ages are not redundant! One age does not imply another age with any certainty.” We need to break free from stereotypes.  

We need to think of ourselves as more than our “chronological age!” Our incessant pre-occupation with seeking and/or recovering youth in all the wrong places, and for all the wrong reasons, is posing many problems for individual and society. The reliance on “Chronological age,” as an arbiter slots us and others into pre-ordained assumptions and conclusions. It leads to categorical thinking, and categorical thinking encourages inaccurate generalizations.

Beyond Chronology . . .

Be yourself! There will only ever be one of you in history, even as clones become fashionable, especially for those who can afford them! There IS only one you – one you, with different possibilities capable of unfolding and blossoming as opportunities emerge. You are a seed filled with potential. You are unity and diversity. There can be constancy in identity, temperament and self, even as there is specificity across situations.

If there is a secret for “all” ages, I think it can be found in the opera, Turandot. You may recall the closing words of Puccini’s opera, when the main figure (I always think of Pavarotti), whispers the secret in the ear of the cold and detached princess, eagerly awaiting a reply to free her from her from her way-of-being in the world amidst wealth, servants, power, position – and isolation: The answer given is “love.” Do you love? Can you love? Do you wish to be loved?” Does chronological age — alone — matter?


Anthony Marsella, Ph.D., a member of the TRANSCEND Network, is a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii, and past director of the World Health Organization Psychiatric Research Center in Honolulu. He is known nationally and internationally as a pioneer figure in the study of culture and psychopathology who challenged the ethnocentrism and racial biases of many assumptions, theories, and practices in psychology and psychiatry. In more recent years, he has been writing and lecturing on peace and social justice. He has published 15 edited books, and more than 250 articles, chapters, book reviews, and popular pieces. He can be reached at


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 25 Aug 2014.

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