Why this year’s older candidates may be less stressed, more optimistic presidents

Lenard W. Kaye, University of Maine.

Originally  published in the Bangor Daily News on April 26, 2016.

Amid the hotly debated issues of this unusually entertaining presidential primary season, a significant characteristic of the candidate pool has largely been lost in the shuffle. I am referring to the advancing age of many of the presidential candidates.

Four out of five candidates who have withstood the battle until now and remain among the last few standing are men and women in their 60s and 70s. If victorious, Donald Trump would be 70 years of age when officially sworn into office. John Kasich would be 64, Hillary Clinton 69 and Bernie Sanders 75. Some have joked and even expressed concern over the age of one or more of these candidates, suggesting their age is a liability and worthy of concern in terms of their longer term ability to perform adequately in the Oval Office.

Please don’t count me among those who worry about such matters. In fact, I celebrate the fact that the current cohort of candidates tends to be “long in the tooth.” The presidential debates have served as a terrific opportunity to showcase the prominent role increasingly played by older adults in the political process while it simultaneously has the potential to dispel the hurtful myths and stereotypes of the worn out and disengaged elder.

It has been argued that remaining in the political fray over the past few months and withstanding the physically and mentally exhausting schedule required to survive a presidential campaign would severely test the stamina and endurance of anyone, even those much younger than the candidates named above. But, I dare say these “older” adults have matched 45-year-old Ted Cruz’s energy level, step for step, all along the way. Wouldn’t it be terrific if their vivacity and spirit could serve, once and for all, in laying to rest the long outdated conventional wisdom — no, let’s call it what it is: age discrimination and ageism — that assumes individuals in their sixth and seventh decades of life are past their prime, ready to throw in the towel and take up residence on the porch in the proverbial rocking chair.

Actually, there is considerable research evidence to suggest that advancing age might turn out to be an advantage in long, drawn-out battles such as a political campaign and, subsequently, serving in the undeniably demanding role of president. While it is true that older people are more likely to have to cope with such conditions as chronic illness and disability, the loss of loved ones and their own inevitable demise, research confirms that older adults report fewer stressful life events than do their younger counterparts.

When you think about it, that makes sense. The classic stressful moments in life have more likely passed, including the “big four” — marriage, divorce, starting new jobs and having children. Older adults also report fewer hassles and actually rate life events as less stressful than do younger people. Maybe an older adult’s accumulated experience and more developed coping resources (aka wisdom) enable them to appraise challenges and problems as being less disturbing and irritating and therefore requiring less energy to address and resolve. To be sure, the older you are the more likely you have been faced with extremely difficult moments that may, in turn, enable you to deal with newly arising challenges with greater effectiveness and efficiency. Oh, and by the way, research studies also confirm that older adults tend to be more optimistic about the future than younger people with this positive mentality increasing in prominence as we grow older. These are all findings that suggest that, lo and behold, older candidates may have an edge when running for political office.

The key point is, we shouldn’t dismiss the capacities, abilities and determination of older adults. Whether in the political arena or the business world or in the communities where they reside, older adults can and do exhibit rich experience and provide exceedingly active and wise counsel to help better maneuver the complex world in which we live.

Bottom line, chronological age is becoming less and less a reliable predictor of vitality and capacity. I’m thinking it would be awesome if the engagement of the older candidates on both sides of the aisle that are contributing to this year’s fascinating political theater at least partially serve to smash the harmful stereotypes of the out-of-touch “senior citizen” that have been dogging older adults for far too long.

Lenard W. Kaye is a professor at the University of Maine School of Social Work and director of the University of Maine Center on Aging. He is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

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