Sadly, many people have a very narrow view of old age—none more so, perhaps, than those who are aging themselves. We can get so caught up in what we’re losing, that we fail to see that there is much that we gain as we age, often even more than what we have lost. With life expectancy growing, and the science of aging continually expanding, it’s time for a different perspective…
Marc Agronin, MD, a board-certified geriatric psychiatrist and author of The End of Old Age: Living a Longer, More Purposeful Life, says aging isn’t about eroding—it’s about evolving. Here, he outlines the evolution to a different stage of life with its own benefits and advantages…
The Brain Improves with Age
While there are many jokes about senior moments, I believe that older brains have enormous potential because of the aging and learning process. How so? Seniors make better decisions, are more at peace with themselves, and have a more informed perspective on life. I think aging allows for a more mature way of thinking, in that older people are able to draw on a greater history of experience when analyzing a situation and tend to be less emotionally reactive. Pulling from a broad store of memories and experiences also allows older people to problem solve more creatively.
Taken all together, aging can be a jumping off point for a renewed sense of purpose and growth if you are willing to explore some new directions…
Try a more creative approach. Part of problem-solving comes from being able to think divergently, along different pathways. As the brain matures, we get better at doing this and our solutions become more creative. In real terms, this means that if you find yourself facing a challenge such as being unable to stand for long periods of time or unable to hold your hand steady, you can usually find a workaround—maybe one that is even better than the original way you had of doing things. Example: The famous French painter Matisse almost died from an intestinal ailment in the early 1940s. Miraculously, he survived, but certainly not in the same physical condition. He could no longer stand and paint the big canvases that he was used to. So, he had a choice to make. He either had to give up his career or find a new way of doing it. In the end, he found a new way of doing it which revolutionized the art world. From his wheelchair, he cut shapes from vividly colored sheets of paper and instructed his assistant on how to paste them up on the wall. He captivated the world with these images and his bold use of colors. Much of what Matisse is best known for comes from the last 10 years of his life, at a point when many people would’ve said, “It’s time to give up and stop creating.”
Find ways to reinvent yourself. I work with a lot of people who have lost a spouse or a partner after many years. That can be a very difficult time. But it can also be a moment for reinvention. Example: One woman, after facing losses, decided that she wanted to work with other people facing similar challenges. She thought about being a psychologist or a social worker, but at that point in life she didn’t want to return to school. Instead she got training in a hospice program and started working with other individuals who were facing the death of a loved one. It allowed her to heal herself in many ways while helping others to heal as well. Try this: Volunteer opportunities are everywhere. They are a good way for people to dip a toe into something to see if you might want to spend more time doing it.
Think of yourself as liberated. We tend to think that liberation and experimentation are the domain of the young, but that’s not true.With age come fewer inhibitions.In my experience, older people often feel less encumbered by previous approaches and ideologies and ways of thinking now than when they were younger. It’s time to really shake up the stereotypes we have about aging and realize that often we can take a leadership role in terms of doing things differently. You even have the freedom to reinvent the type of relationships you have with other people in your family—especially the younger generation.
Take stock of all your personal assets. Think of your life as you would a financial portfolio. What are your assets? It’s different for everyone. And remember, it doesn’t have to be having a cure for cancer. One woman, Mary, continued to make amazing Italian dinners for her family every Sunday. She was the glue that held the family together and Sunday dinner gave their week a sense of rhythm. I don’t think Mary would ever think her meatballs were some great, wise approach to life, but they really were. And I promise you that someday her grandchildren when they are older will make those same recipes and the feeling of warmth and love will return to them.
It could be sewing… it could be your ability to set up and maintain a budget…it could be that you are still a very good driver. Talking to people about your list of unique skills and assets begins to redefine how you see yourself and how you can define your future. This is what I call re-aging, because then you can start pursuing some of these new activities now.
Be open to new directions. Are you happy with the roads you have pursued so far? Do you want to continue on the same path? Look back and ask yourself, What were some of the most challenging experiences in my life?…How did I get through them?… What pushed me forward? The answers to these questions give individuals a sense of their purpose, and this may drive ideas for what you can do going forward. Just because you have always been an accountant, doesn’t mean that you now can’t pursue your passion for gardening. It’s not too late. Make a list of the things you want to do now. This is not a traditional bucket list of travel destinations. It’s about how you want to live the coming years…and the legacy you want to leave behind.