An elderly man heads to his farm fields, rake and sickle over his shoulder. Antdorf, Germany.

Lessons I never expected from the old people in Germany.

When I first moved to Berlin, I was pleasantly surprised at the number of German seniors who were sporting leather pants, colorful mohawks and studded leather jackets. Maybe that shouldn’t be alarming, as it’s understandable that any person who was a part of the original punk movement could now be in their fifties or sixties. In retrospect, this served as a hint of an awakening for me about seniors in Deutschland. While living in Germany, I learned that getting old comes with a different set of rules than it does in America. And the more I learned about how Germans age, the more I knew they have it right. When I get old, I’m getting old German-style.

So what happened to the elderly of America? We’re living longer. Our media is abundant with inspiring senior-targeted ads displaying old people doing all the things of their dreams. So why are so many American seniors generally bland and uninspired? The trouble, I believe stems from the fact that all of the “freedom” in America comes with a crapload of unwritten societal rules. When you reach 30, 40, 50, 60, 70 you’re expected to dress a certain way. Cut your hair in a particular style. Have hobbies like the ones in the pharmaceutical commercials. And if you break these rules, you’re a freak. You have issues. You’re going through a mid-life crisis.

We’re taught all of our lives that we have to behave in a particular way, living up to someone else’s prejudiced notions of “age appropriateness”.

Berlin street art, crafted from a series of photos that feature seniors who live in the city.

Not in Germany. One of the most fantastic observations I experienced as a resident in both Berlin and Bavaria is the lack of outward judgement of fellow citizens. Perhaps my lack of language skills prevented me from seeing everything, but it’s obvious that people in Germany are more likely to accept you for who you are. Or what you want to do. You’re 75, and want purple hair? Own it. You’re 85 and want to climb a mountain? Clubbing in your fifties? What’s stopping you? It’s far more common for German seniors to be unique individuals, and not chained to their couches watching tv or buried in the internet. Old people in Germany are living their lives as active individuals doing whatever suits them. And what suits them isn’t always khaki.

I’ll never forget climbing up Mount Jochberg, huffing and puffing through the steep hike on a hot day, and then getting passed by a woman 30 years my senior, happily whistling her way up the 5,000ft ascension.

I think that since kindergarten (a German word, btw) Germans are raised with less fear about doing things, a realization and pride of embracing who they are, and don’t have the same intense cultural rules of fitting into a “norm” that Americans do. It’s common for German playgrounds to sport equipment that would easily be outlawed as dangerous in America. If you’re taught that it’s ok to risk your limbs on a zip line in the public park at age six, you’ve been instilled with a sense of bravery. And self confidence. And self confidence leads to individuality. And all of this must lead to a deep seated understanding that you can do what you want to do.

I’ve seen more active, individualistic and vibrant seniors in Germany than anywhere I’ve ever visited. And this isn’t just an urban thing. Our time living in a Bavarian farm village had us as neighbors with field workers in their seventies or eighties. Families with four generations of farmers are out cutting their fields. With sickles. The hard way.

What can we learn from the old people in Germany?

Be yourself. Do what you want to do. Get off the couch. The more active you are in your forties, fifties and sixties, the less likely you’ll be confined to a wheelchair in your seventies. And the more you maintain your individual identity, the happier you’ll be all life long. So go climb a mountain. Get a mohawk. Become an artist. Or a dance sensation. Never be someone you aren’t, stop trying to live by other people’s unwritten rules, and get out there and have fun. There’s a whole world waiting with promising work, exploration and fun. Even for old people.