Aging well or just aging: The rockers of my youth

I was one of the estimated 50 million people who watched the “12-12-12” concert for Hurricane Sandy relief and I had two reactions. The first was that event was especially poignant because, as the New York Times reported, more than 40% of the fatalities of this storm were people over age 65. Many drowned in their homes or died when help couldn’t reach them in time to get medical care. (I think this is really a comment about aging in community vs. aging in place.) But, this is an issue beyond my ken to solve. I am not a politician or a policy person. What I am, though, is a “child who’s grown old” with rock and roll music as the soundtrack of my life, and I saw this in stark detail during the broadcast.

An article by Alex Williams headlined: The music is timeless, but about the rockers… was the second thing I reacted to. Here were the groups that helped me get through the turbulence of the 1960s and ’70s. They were largely, as Mick Jagger so aptly quipped, “…the largest collection of old English musicians ever assembled in Madison Square Garden.” (Springsteen, Bon Jovi and Billy Joel were there too, and while they are younger they were termed “geriatric” in the article.)

The old English musicians were about my age or younger! Williams’ article looked at the critical issue of whether it is “possible to look cool and rebellious after 50 without looking foolish.”  In other words, do those aging rock stars who dyed their hair and bared their bellies have to fade away when they no longer have the youthful images that are the calling card of youthful rebellion?

There was much reaction to Roger Daltrey showing his midriff during The Who’s energetic set of classics (remember their hit “My Generation,” with the line “Hope I die before I get old.”?), and of the color of Bon Jovi’s and Paul McCartney’s hair. These and other icons were reported to have been the subjects of snarky Tweets. And Jagger still struts like he did when he was in his twenties, but it looked odd to me doing it at almost 70. So why do some aging rockers have to use age denial to perpetuate their rebellious bona fides?

Does the music of protest have to be accompanied by bounding across the stage, gyrations and age-denying cosmetic interventions? This is not a remote issue: the “You are My Sunshine” days of sing-along music activities in long-term care settings are coming to an end. We need to think about how the next wave may want to spend their time enjoying music in groups when they are not listening to iPods or rock wall climbing.

Let me introduce the concept of “trait transformation” as a proposed solution that allows aging boomers to rock on without engaging in age denial. This finding in developmental psychology helps to explain how people develop and get more complex, but stay the same person. Trait transformation is the process that takes place as a result of development and maturation when a lifelong trait changes how it appears in a person’s behavior. For example, infants who were very good at following a moving picture of a human face were superior socializers at three months, but then they didn’t seem to want to follow the picture anymore. They had moved on; the trait that was being measured had transformed from tracking a picture to interacting with a human being. The Experience Corps is full of retirees who use their traits to help others although they no longer work in their old jobs.

If the music boomers grew up on is still meaningful, then enjoying its essence—its many meanings—as we age will have to be available without the distractions of age-denying cosmetic overlays that the stars use. Rockers can get old and still rock on, and that will be the “new normal.”

The message of the ’60s and ’70s was not about only about sexual revolution and protest, it also was about protesting the status quo that limits the diversity of individual expression of who we were and what we could become, aging rockers have much to contribute to how boomers will experience aging. If they would only accept that they don’t have to deny their aging to be relevant.

For many of their aging fans, the next era of life will depart from the conformity that an ageist, declinist approach to aging dictates. You won’t need to take off your shirt or dye your hair to be an icon of cool aging or to sing songs about what was (and is) important. Because what’s cool looks different as a person ages, but cool remains a trait.

Thanks to McCartney, Jagger and the old English musicians, the beat went on. That’s the soundtrack of the boomers’ lives. What will the music in your setting be in 2030, and what timeless music will people singing along with? I expect that people will still agree with Mick: “I know it’s only rock and roll but I like it.”

Topics: Activities