“Old age” has long gotten a bad rap. The conventional thinking has been that it’s a time for rocking chairs, fading memory, illness and decrepitude.
Now: As an increasing number of Americans are living—and thriving—into their 80s and beyond, it’s more important than ever to cast aside those outdated and harmful attitudes.
What the new thinking can mean for you: Older adults who see aging as a positive stage of life have fewer cardiovascular problems and actually outlive those with gloomier self-perceptions by more than seven years, according to landmark research conducted at Yale University.
So what are you waiting for? There are simple steps you can take to make sure that you aren’t missing out on the richness of aging—and this uniquely positive life stage.
THE GIFTS OF AGE
As a geriatric psychiatrist, I have worked with hundreds of older adults who have developed life skills and perspectives that, in many ways, enable them to live more successfully than younger adults.
Of course, we can’t kid ourselves. Old age does bring some challenges. We become more susceptible to disease. Our brains and bodies slow down. Daily life gets harder in many ways. The flip side is that some of the traits that come with age make us more adept at dealing with adversity and finding purpose in our lives.
Don’t believe the myth that older adults get stuck in the past and can’t handle new challenges. For example, research has shown that many older adults excel at divergent thinking, the ability to generate different solutions to particular problems. A lifetime of experiences helps them sort through complexities and explore novel ideas.
Other significant benefits that come with growing older—and what you can do to cultivate them in your own life…
• A reserve of wisdom. You can be smart and capable at any age, but wisdom is something different. It’s an amalgam of all the knowledge, skill and attitudes that you’ve gained over time.
Wisdom is a trait that we often attribute to the world’s great thinkers, but it also has a smaller, day-to-day scope.
Example: Mary, a woman in her 90s, had no earth-shattering life experiences. She wasn’t known by anyone outside her small circle of family and friends. But within that circle, she had tremendous influence.
She had two Sunday rituals that gave her a sense of purpose—Catholic Mass in the morning and a family dinner in the afternoon. Her son-in-law would take her to church. After that, she would spend hours with her daughter and other family members preparing a multicourse Italian meal. She was the glue that held the family together—the one who shared recipes…passed along family stories…and overflowed with love. These are powerful forms of wisdom.
My advice: People sometimes ask, “How do I achieve wisdom?” The answer: You already have it. Think of wisdom as your life’s résumé. It might consist of knowledge from previous careers…military experience…being a good listener…a tolerance for different ideas, etc. To help you identify your own reserve of wisdom, see this table.
• Resilience. Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the Gulf Coast, was one of the deadliest hurricanes in history. Older adults were among the most vulnerable and suffered disproportionately. Thousands lost their homes, support networks and even their lives.
Yet subsequent research found that many of them coped just as well with the chaos as younger adults—and, in many cases, even better. Decades of experience increased their stores of resilience, the ability to manage life’s obstacles without feeling helpless.
Examples: They didn’t sweat the storm-related loss of cell-phone service or the Internet because they tended to view these things as luxuries, not necessities. Shortages of food and water? People who have lived through tough times know how to be resourceful when things are scarce. They could see beyond the chaos and find glimmers of acceptance and hope.
Resilience has physical benefits, as well. Not getting overwrought about difficulties allows the body to quickly recover from stress-related changes—muscle tension, increased heart rate, elevated stress hormones, etc.
Remarkable finding: A study of hundreds of older victims after the storm found that they often had the emotional and psychological strength to deal with the widespread loss of electricity and other basic services. In a way, it’s not surprising—these were the same people who went through the Great Depression and World War II. Unlike younger victims, they already knew how to be resourceful in these types of situations.
My advice: Even resilient adults will eventually hit what I call an “age point,” in which their resources and coping skills are temporarily overwhelmed. It’s important to get help—from a therapist and/or friends and family members—when you suffer such a potentially serious setback. The ultimate resolution can bring growth and greater resilience.
For example, one of my elderly patients had a blood test that indicated abnormal liver enzymes. She was convinced that she had a terminal disease and would be unable to care for her husband who had Alzheimer’s disease. Her emotional state started to rapidly deteriorate.
Along with therapy, I treated her with a short-acting tranquilizer, which allowed her to get out of bed, leave the house and function more normally overall. She eventually recovered and was able to go off the medication—and, in some ways, grew stronger.
After further tests showed that she was fine, she recognized that she’d had a turning point that clarified what she wanted from life. She felt that she had been given a second chance to do what really mattered—to care for her husband, be a guide for her son, be active in the community and form a close network of friends.
• Reinvention. Older adults can do some of their best work late in life. After a serious illness, the French painter Henri Matisse turned his attention, in his 70s and 80s, to the paper cutouts that appeared in the influential book Jazz and eventually revolutionized the world of art. He brought a lifetime of experience to the new medium, along with a sense of freedom that’s often missing in the young.
Gene Cohen, MD, a well-known psychiatrist, describes an encore phase that starts in the late 70s and continues until the end of life. People often take up new activities during this phase. It can be artistic endeavors…more reading…landscape design…or even real estate investing!
Important: You can reinvent yourself even if you’re dealing with physical/cognitive issues. In fact, these issues mean that you should reinvent. You can shape your interests to circumvent otherwise detrimental changes.
My advice: Start small. Manage your expectations to match your current reality.
For example, one of my clients, a retired professor, suffered from memory loss that made it difficult to keep up with the high-powered, distinguished people she had always spent a lot of time with. She was deeply depressed.
We decided that she should find new intellectual opportunities that didn’t require her to be on stage or to “compete.” She started taking art and adult-education classes. Family members helped her get used to a computer and an iPad. She was able to pursue her intellectual interests in new (and more comfortable) ways. The opportunities are endless!