Frail, powerless, alone. Mention any of these words to an average guy — particularly a man in a certain age range — and you might see him shudder. It’s fair to assume that few people — male or female — look forward to getting older, but men in particular are finding it difficult to deal with. In fact, it’s the very ideals of masculinity that make aging difficult for many men.
According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, these masculine ideals are creating distinct challenges for men as life expectancy increases and gender roles continue to evolve in society. Trying to hold on too dearly to “manly” stereotypes can lead to painful, lonely, and difficult years for men as they age. In response, many in the research, medical, and psychology fields are seeking new ways to help men grow old healthfully and change their ideas of what it means to be a man in their twilight years.
Research on men and aging looks at the concept of “masculine norms,” of which there are 11 typically cited. As the WSJ article highlights, these are some of the key aspects of masculinity that men tend to want to hold on to as they age — notably, physical strength, self-reliance, taking risks, and emotional control. And while the WSJ article explored these concepts among experts and subjects in their later years, these fears and anxieties about aging can pop up long before retirement is even on the horizon.
“Ultimately, it comes down to a feeling of a loss of control,” Laura Hsu, an assistant professor at Merrimack College whose research explores the psychological process of aging and how it can affect physical and mental health, tells Yahoo Beauty. “The norms of masculinity have an undercurrent of being in control and having some element of power, including a feeling of power and control over their own decisions, physical fitness, and ability to generate an income. When one’s body or social position can no longer reinforce those feelings, increasing feelings of helplessness can ultimately take a toll on one’s mental and physical health.”
Yahoo Beauty explored this topic with a few middle-aged men to see how deeply these concerns resonated. “It’s the ongoing ‘breakdown’ of my body that I notice and dread,” explains Robert Haynes-Paterson, a 51-year-old writer based in New York City. “I’m healthy so far: no prescription meds, no heart trouble, etc. But I notice how much things have changed in the past couple of years — hair thinning, strength diminishing, muscles randomly pulling for no major reason.”
“The physical stuff — that’s what worries me a great deal,” chimes in Greg Simms Jr., a writer based in Ohio. “For years — from age 38 and back — I thought I was invincible. Now, at the age of 43, I realize, starkly, that I’m mortal.”
For Bart Irace, 45, a project manager who lives in Brooklyn, the importance of work in a man’s life is top of mind. “A change to active working life concerns me the most at the moment,” says Irace. “With the exception of senior executives, age is not typically seen as an asset, and aging workers are eased, or in some cases forced, out of their positions. I hope that I’m about 10 years away from advanced age making me a target for job loss, but in the meantime I’m trying to prepare for the possibility by thinking of occupations and/or skills that are more immune to this pattern.”
Haynes-Paterson shares this concern. As a father of a special needs child, now 13 years old, he’s been a freelancer for the last decade: “I’m watching full-time job opportunities dry up fast and wondering what I could possibly be doing in five or 10 years that will produce income, insurance, retirement.”
When queried on what they’re doing to combat their aging woes, most of the men we spoke to confessed that it takes a great deal of focus and thinking about consequences. Says Simms, “Since I can’t drink my misery away, I’m being more healthy all around. I’m eating clean meals, trying my best to stay away from fast food. I’m also working out at a gym, and walking outside when I can. My aim isn’t to look sexy for the summer … I’m working out so I don’t drop dead.”
Alan Rosenblatt, a 46-year-old investment compliance office in Los Angeles, says he’s more aware than ever that his ability to recover from injury and exertion will never be what it was a decade or two ago. “I’ve always done sports and other activities in my adult life, and I don’t enjoy seeing them slip away,” he explains. “I especially see it on the soccer pitch, when my brain wants my legs to go a certain way, but the legs simply won’t listen. Sure, I can chase a 30-year-old around the field, but the difference is that he’s recovered in 20 seconds to start running again, while I’m gasping for breath for the next five minutes. To address this, I keep playing and being active, to hopefully keep things at this minimum level for as long as possible.”
According to Hsu, staying physically active is important, but mental shifts can often be much more powerful and effective in adding more healthy years to your life. “Having a positive view of aging, which many don’t, regardless of one’s sex, is important,” she says. Hsu points to a study from 2002 that found “individuals with more positive self-perceptions of aging measured up to 23 years earlier lived an average of 7.5 years longer, compared to individuals with less positive self-perceptions.”
So despite the very real physical effects of getting older, it appears that mental fortitude may be the ultimate defense for men (and women) against the frailties of getting older. Something that men, no matter where they fall on the spectrum of masculinity, should be able to get their heads around. Fear is, after all, merely a state of mind.