How to approach the ageing process
I have always wondered why it should not be possible to keep your consciousness engaged and awake despite advancing years. Then I discovered a gem of a book called The Fountain of Age, by Betty Friedan (Simon & Schuster, $25) that demonstrates how it is indeed possible.
Though written in 1993, Friedan’s observations are still pertinent years on. Her detailed account of research into ageing showed that, while there is a predictable decline in our physiology, there is nevertheless clear evidence (although more difficult to measure) of growth in our emotional, intellectual and spiritual capacities.
Scientific evidence accumulated in the decades since Friedan’s book only supports this further. So why is it that we have come to view getting older as something to be camouflaged and battled?
The stereotypes of ageing
We live in a completely youth-obsessed culture. Youth equals beauty, success and creativity. Unfortunately, much past research about ageing has been conducted on people in nursing homes, so unsurprisingly ageing has become equated with loss, decay and deterioration. In surveys that ask individuals to describe older people, the following statements sum up common attitudes: They are not open-minded or adaptable. They are not physically or sexually active. They are not useful members of society. Their medical condition becomes their life. They are a bore, a chore, a duty and a burden. They are negative, complaining or self-absorbed. Who would want to run towards this life stage with open arms?
It’s no wonder we are obsessed with avoiding ageing via wrinkle creams and cosmetic surgery. While there may be articles on being beautiful and fabulous over 40 or 50, they are still all about looking forever young. We admire older people who don’t look their age as if looking your age is shameful.
In the media, where we unconsciously soak up society’s attitudes and expectations, there are very few images of older people. To be precise, only 1–2 per cent of television shows and commercials show images of older people. It’s the same in the print media and this is the case even when a magazine isn’t geared towards young people. You would need to bury your head deep and long in the sand to avoid the sense that as an older person you are obsolete, purposeless and invisible!
One of the most obvious challenges of coping with getting older is dealing with the change in appearance, particularly for women. We rage against the wrinkles and the weight. And looks do count. It’s tough watching them fade. It especially makes women angry that no matter how much time they spend in front of the mirror they still can’t look the way they want.
By all means continue to eat well and exercise regularly to maintain optimal health and sustain an appealing appearance as you get older. However, at some stage it’s critical to accept and embrace yourself as you appear now instead of wishing you could look like you did when younger. Women complain about becoming invisible at a certain age, but after we die do we want people to say, “She looked 10 years younger” or “She lived a great life”?
I know what I’d choose. By clinging to the illusion of youth you may just miss the goodies that come with age. (More about that later.) Thankfully, research shows that, while the fear of losing youthful beauty is an obsession for middle-aged women, older women transcend it. They don’t worry about how they look and say they like how they look.
So the good news is it’s just the transition stage we have to get through and then our self-image recovers with age. This doesn’t mean we give up on our looks. I have seen older women who are interesting and creative and dress with style and a unique expression of their individuality. They remind me it is possible to look great when you are older and defy the stereotypes of wearing frumpy frocks and getting your hair set.
Death and loss
Getting older means dealing with a range of different losses. Mortality becomes real. You may have your own physical ailments to deal with, friends may become sick and some will die before they make it to old age. There will be grief and mourning to deal with. There may also be some physical incapacity to manage.
When confronting these realities, you basically have two choices. You can say something like: “There is only death ahead, so what is the point?” This attitude leads to feelings of futility, anxiety and depression. The alternative is to do the work of coming to terms with mortality.
It is not morbid to contemplate death; rather it is necessary for good mental health. The result is a person who says something like: “Since my time is limited, I had better start savouring and making the most of the time I have left. I am going to make it count.” This attitude leads to feelings of vitality, appreciation and joy. It’s hardly a brainteaser, then, to work out which choice is more life-affirming and helpful.
One of the core difficulties in getting older is that there is a difficult transition to go through in middle age. Just as adolescence bridges childhood and adulthood, middle age takes us from adulthood into eldership. Adolescence can be a chaotic and uncomfortable time. So can middle age.
There is a big letting-go that must happen in the transition. We let go of the dominance of the ego with its focus on things such as external presentation, self-obsession and individual power and achievement. We unhook from a youth focus to a wisdom focus.
The ego is humbled as you age, but if the ego is all you have to cling to, it’s going to be tough going. Some people refuse to make the transition and instead revert to the values of youth. The developmental psychologist Erik Erikson says the risk of such a strategy is that further down the track such people will be left with feelings of vindictiveness, despair and depression and may be at risk of suicide.
If you are prepared to cultivate a deeper self, it’s a different story. Those who are satisfied and happy in old age acknowledge that their self-confidence is the result of experiencing a period when they questioned their beliefs, values and objectives. But their satisfaction stems from a willingness to undertake this search for meaning and the ability to overcome the dependence on superficial measures of success.
Real losses are incurred during the transition, but it is possible to adjust and transcend. If you can stay with the discomfort of the transition, something new can emerge. You can reinvent yourself and like the new you that you create and become.
Why we improve with age
In recent years, researchers have begun studying older people who are still integrated into the community and found that physical and mental decline in age is not inevitable. In the process, they realised that even the way they were going about testing older people was flawed. Measures of human development had previously been about muscle strength, numerical skills and memory. These do decrease with age, but what about all the unmeasured and unmeasurable qualities?
What researchers began to realise is that younger people give the “correct” responses in tests but their answers just involve simple logic. Older people give open-ended, ambiguous answers based on actual life experience. They look at the larger context. While youth might be “right”, the oldies have depth and complexity. Once this was taken into account, then it became apparent that there were actually gains in older age. This completely blew the stereotypes apart.
The news got even better, though. Researchers examining ageing then made the exciting discovery that there were actually increases in the functioning of older people over the years. What this means is that how a 70-year-old functions today will not be how 70-year-olds will be in a decade. Whether it’s due to innovation in lifestyle, medical care or simply our increased longevity compared with our forbears, our brains and bodies are evolving. In a decade, 70-year-olds will be even more highly functioning.
So if you are 50 now, you will be even more on the ball intellectually at 70, and if you are 40 years old now, at 70 and beyond you will be streets ahead. This puts a whole new slant on getting older. It doesn’t have to signal a decline. Individuation can continue for the rest of your life. A new stage of human development is emerging in front of our very eyes.
Creating new possibilities
Some older people declare that “old age is the best time in life”. They are developing wisdom, integrity, authenticity and the ability to see the big picture of life, with its deep meaning and its truth. They have a quiet, internal power and you could enjoy it, too. Following are some ideas for attaining it.
If middle age is about mastery and mentoring, older age is about wisdom and eldership. You have the opportunity to review and come to terms with your entire life. Many older people say they are no longer envious of others or anguished by their own failures. They can finally get over self-pity and excuses and get on with life.
This life review can bring a quietude of spirit. You accept where you fit in the scheme of things. There is empathy for others and a resilience that comes from having made it through so much. You don’t take things so seriously and can play more. A burgeoning spirituality can lead to an attitude of benevolence and a desire to contribute. This eldership is much needed on our planet and is lost if people fade away and stagnate as they age. Just as occurs in indigenous cultures, elders can bring an important perspective even to modern dilemmas.
As you age, there aren’t such prescribed roles, so there is more freedom to do what you want. People speak about finally being able to be themselves beyond any roles. They are freed of defences and pretence.
With less conformity comes frankness and truth telling. Many older people say they don’t have to care what other people think any more. They explain that they don’t have to worry about being liked, can say no easily and don’t have to please other people. Some speak of being able to give their own lives blessings instead of needing it from others. They say variously that they are free to be impetuous, profligate and adventurous.
Researchers have found that, despite some physical decline in age, there is nevertheless the possibility of gaining a “wholeness of spirit”. People are able to become their full selves. This might mean that as you mature you integrate both the masculine and feminine sides of your nature. It could also mean you explore and develop previously unrealised parts of yourself, such as your artistic or socially aware alter ego.
Presence and power
The radiance and vivacity of older age comes from developing a self-confidence and authority that arise from knowing and developing your full self. This is not the ego self. The deeper self comes after a complete change in priorities. You are no longer focused on accumulating status and goods. Instead, there is a groundedness where ordinary moments become newly interesting. There is a return of wonder and delight at the world and an ability to live in the present. This brings a fresh view on life.
How to create vitality in age
Some of the descriptions of successful and happy old age sound like descriptions of enlightenment. So if this holy grail is achievable in our mature years, how do we reach it? Researchers have found a simple recipe:
- Remain actively involved in something you find meaningful. Retiring to some golf course just won’t cut it.
- Stay connected to other people and to society. Contact with others enriches us like nothing else can.
- Contemplate and review the entirety of life, including death.
Studies show that a new need for meaning in life becomes vital in older age. To age holistically requires that you remain passionate about interests and beliefs and maintain an interest in others and the world around you. The dream of retirement is deceptive if it means endless leisure. This can be a living death. It can lead to loss, isolation and self-disdain. We still need to be learning and working; we still need to have plans and goals. It is becoming clearer that stimulation and creativity can keep your brain cells developing new connections right into old age, so make the most of that ability.
Studies show that the more meaningful the contribution a person feels they are making, the greater positive impact it has on their health. In fact, a sense of meaning and the ability to express oneself fully are as important to people as their physical health. Health difficulties can be overcome as long as these other two factors are in place.
It used to be assumed and accepted that older people should disengage from the world in preparation for their eventual death. But withdrawal actually hastens death. Instead, remaining connected in society is vital since it maintains self-esteem, social worth and happiness. Unsurprisingly, studies show that strong social networks, affection and the opportunity to confide in others can help us live longer and happier lives. What might be surprising is that the ability to give such emotional support to others is even more important to health and wellbeing.
In older age, the “false glue” (as one older person has called it) of money, power or fear of being alone stops being useful in relationships. This may result in a yearning for real intimacy. People can finally take their mask off and really know each other. As the ego mellows, there is more tolerance, forgiveness, gratitude and joy. It is heartening to find in surveys that most older people see it as a time of deepening relationships, increased closeness and heightened compassion.
To navigate older age in top condition, it’s helpful to meditate or cultivate some form of spirituality through writing in a journal, exploring a philosophy such as Buddhism or engaging in a practice that incorporates body and mind, such as yoga. Cultivating some of these interests when you are younger will give you more support systems as you age, so that you have the skills necessary to seek the space to gain deeper insight and peace. It’s time to look beneath the surface of life and ask the difficult questions such as: What is it all for? Have I made the best of my life? Did I love well? Have I made a contribution?
One way to do this life review is to create a “wisdom will” or what some call an “ethical will”. This is where you take account of your life and write down what you have learned from it. You can then have this document passed on to your loved ones when you die. Speaking of death, it’s important to contemplate dying. This brings everything into perspective. It makes the time left precious. Genuine goals may become clearer. You may even start a “bucket list”: an account of all the things you want to do before you die. While it might include active things such as parachuting for the first time or finally travelling to that exotic location, it will more than likely include putting your hard-earned wisdom and compassion to use in the world.
There is a famous George Bernard Shaw quote that we could all use as a mantra as we age: “We do not stop playing because we grow old … we grow old because we stop playing.” If you aim to make play part of your anti-ageing armoury, you can only benefit. Meanwhile, continue to explore life’s depth and meaning. Continue to foster and value the relationships you have and approach the world with good humour. This will leave your heart and your mind open to all the wonderful things that ageing has to offer so you breeze through the years happily and healthily.
Take control of your attitudes about ageing and channel them in the right way and you will enjoy:
- Unification of previous contradictions in life
- Wedding of emotion and thought
- Integration of elements from a lifetime of experience into a holistic vision
- Transcendence of outer appearances to search out underlying essentials
- Shift from hierarchy to co-ordination and co-operation
- Conviction that similarities are more important than differences
- Status, fame or money no longer motivations
- Departure from convention, unorthodoxy
Recipe for a fulfilled elder
- Be yourself: No more pretending, trying-to-be or keeping-up-with.
- Review your life: Contemplate its patterns and meaning.
- Have an intention for your later years: Don’t just let them drift by.
- Develop an inner life: Meditate, journal, contemplate.
- Pass on your wisdom: Give it to younger people by staying connected and active within your community.
- Enjoy your freedom: Cultivate your crazy, idiosyncratic, eccentric self.
Writing a wisdom will
This provides a chance to pass on your wisdom to your loved ones, not just your wealth.
1 Why do it:
- To be remembered
- To articulate your values
- To capture your unique perspective on life
- To pass on your accumulated wisdom so it’s not lost
- To give a sense of completion to life
2 What to include:
- Your life’s lessons
- Your important values and beliefs
- Any necessary forgiveness
- Any love and appreciation
- Your hopes and blessing for future generations/LI>