Unfortunately, there isn’t much about aging that we think of as positive in our culture. What a loss! Ageist stereotypes have us living in fear of getting old. Equally limiting is the stereotype of the wise, all-knowing elder who is calm and peaceful and serene. Or the age-defying, super-young oldster who will “never say die.”
A constructive definition
There is a constructive and realistic definition of aging. Each of us needs to define it for ourselves. While the deficits and limitations of the aging body are real, there are opportunities for exploration—one might even say an adventure or quest into the unknown—that focus on an inward journey of learning. With age, we discover more about ourself and clarify our priorities, what’s important or meaningful in life. And as we come closer to our journey’s end, we are often drawn to ask transcendent questions about issues bigger than self, to seek universal truths.
A more balanced view of aging, therefore, involves recognition that despite—or perhaps because of—the challenges of growing old, we actually also tend to develop noteworthy insights or strengths.
Not everyone experiences all of these changes in self-understanding. But studies that have interviewed hundreds of people of advanced years reveal many commonalities that deserve acknowledgement.
Having lived for many years, we eventually know our basic self pretty well. We know who we are, how we fit in, and how we are unique. We know what we like and what we don’t like. We know what we are good at doing and what we aren’t good at.
A certain confidence comes with aging that is different from the confidence of youth. It is confidence based on experience. For instance, we know we have faced challenges in the past and made it through. We know we have skills we can draw upon. And we even know there are coping strategies we’ve tried in the past that we are better off avoiding in the future.
Self-acceptance The flip side of knowing who we are is knowing who we are not, and accepting that. “So I didn’t become a Nobel Laureate, oh well.” “Not a millionaire? That’s okay. An Olympic athlete? Gee.” Dreams of our youth were exciting, but we ended up going down different paths. And these paths gave us rich experiences we never would have dreamed of!
Less anxiety In our younger years, we tend to be filled with social anxiety. We worry about whether we will be able to live up to expectations. We care about what others think. By our later years, none of that matters so much.
“No one ever told me how nice it was to not be twenty!” The confidence of experience and the reduced anxiety that comes with it can open us up to trying new things. “What have I got to lose? Who cares if I don’t do it well. If I enjoy it, that’s what counts.” Pickleball anyone?
“Don’t sweat the small stuff—and it’s all small stuff.”
— Richard Carlson, author
Over the decades, we learn to trust our intuition. We know which of our reactions are fleeting and which have the ring of truth.
Brain studies show that older adults tend to be less emotionally “reactive” or volatile than people in their younger years. We tend to get more philosophical as we age. Based on experience, we know that some hills are worth the battle to conquer and others are not a hill to die on.
Losses bring opportunities
We know that some doors close, but often that is necessary for other doors to open. Losses usually carry the seeds of opportunity. We can often find a wider view. See a bigger picture. We are less fearful because we know we can adapt.
Wisdom: The wider view One of the advantages of having a storehouse of experience is that we have had exposure to many different situations. We can take a wider view of an event because we have seen similar things happen in other circumstances. Lessons learned in one context can be applied to another. This is the basis of creative thinking. And it serves elders well.
The brain waves of wisdom Brain activity patterns vary according to age:
Younger people tend to draw upon one hemisphere of the brain or the other.
Older adults show more activity in both sides at once.
There is a lot of energy being exchanged between the two hemispheres. As one scientist described it, the older brain is in “all-wheel drive.”
Saying that all older adults are wise would be untrue. But it may be that this sharing of information on many brain circuits explains the tendency for older adults to see the bigger picture.
How does happiness unfold over the course of a life? Many young adults think that levels of happiness are highest in youth, and then it’s a downhill slide. (In fact, that is the dominant message or perception of aging in our society.) Research studies, however, are revealing a surprising contradiction.
Age more important than wealth Across all income levels, different races, and urban/suburban and rural settings, there is an unmistakable trend in happiness. We are happiest as children, and then happiest in our old age. It’s the years in the middle where happiness is at its lowest. This pattern has come to be called the “U-shape of happiness.”
Less emotionally reactive
Some of the likely explanations for this experience include greater self-acceptance as we get older, reduced social anxiety, less emotional reactivity, and the ability to take a wide view, to keep things in perspective. Older adults seem to be less angry and less worried than their younger counterparts.
The challenge of our middle years The middle part of our journey—the bottom of the “U”—is often focused on productivity. We are strongly involved in our careers. We may be raising children. There is a lot to do and a thrill in doing it. But it can be challenging and stressful to fit it all in. Time is a constant struggle. And there is always the question of whether we can perform up to specs.
The advantages of age In our older years, we either did or didn’t achieve our goals. There is little to worry about in terms of the unknown. We may have pursued material comforts, only to learn that they were not as gratifying as we had hoped. We learn that not much is 100 percent right or 100 percent wrong in the world. That most everything is made up of a little of both.
We are good at adapting At this point in the journey, life has probably sent us a few curve balls. And if we aren’t experiencing health challenges yet, we likely have friends who are. It’s not hard to start seeing the glass as half full rather than half empty.
Gratitude Over the course of our life, we very likely have seen fortunes change in an instant. These could be our fortunes or those of others. We tend to become grateful for things that we used to take for granted. And we come to appreciate the problems we don’t have.
Death is no longer an abstraction
In our later years, death becomes immensely personal and closer than it’s ever been before. We may not see it yet, but there is no doubt that it is on our horizon. We may get there before we think. And at the least, we realize we are lucky to have lived as long as we have.
The inner journey
The physical limitations of aging can seem like nature’s way of forcing us to look inward. When the external journey is not as available, the internal one beckons. It can be a very deep and rewarding experience. Frequently, it begins with reflection. And once one accepts the losses, whole vistas open up as possibilities when the glass is half full.
Compassion Compassion can become a more familiar companion as we age. Resentments we may have had about past grievances—with parents, spouses, children, or friends—can seem less important. Especially when put in the context of death and never seeing these loved ones again.
Perhaps walking a mile in the shoes of others—elders in our own lives—lends new insight about their behavior. Avenues for forgiveness may open up. As well, our children may experience their own growing empathy and be able to reach out to interact as friends, dropping their image of us as the omnipotent parent.
Moving into our later decades, we tend to think a lot about the meaning of our life. We trade a focus on material accomplishments for time spent in gratifying pursuits. This might be a second career with a focus on fulfillment. It might mean volunteering for a cause we believe in. Or it could mean simply living life very consciously in alignment with personal values.
When time is finite
Rather than view their advancing years as a prelude to death, many older adults come to realize that those years bring life more fully into focus. When we deeply recognize that our time is finite, we often start asking questions about how we want to use what time remains. No time like the present to identify priorities and start deeply living by them!
We may have a bucket list of activities yet to pursue. However, many people focus specifically on their legacy. What do we want to be remembered for? Is there something larger that we can do that will extend beyond our time on the planet?
Living by example
“Am I a bulb that carries the light, or am I the light of which the bulb is only the vehicle?”
— Joseph Campbell, mythologist
Whether one still has physical abilities or is limited more to living by example, there are tremendous opportunities to share our wisdom and insight. Even a person who is bedbound and not long for the world still has a light to shine. And for those fortunate enough to realize this while they still have strength and stamina, life in the later years—with all the advantages that come with age—can be extremely focused and fulfilling.
When my client's family needed assistance navigating the path of dementia, I recommended the Ferretto Consulting Group. We have been working with Jessica Young now for many months and could not be happier. She helped with understanding the needs of a dementia client and assisted the family in making sure those needs were met. Her responsiveness is immediate and her follow-through is on time and on target. Thank you Jessica for providing the stability needed for my clients to feel secure in their decisions concerning their loved one.