Unfortunately, there isn’t much about aging that we think of as positive in our culture. What a loss! Age-ist stereotypes have us living in fear of getting older. Equally limiting are the stereotypes 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. It involves a recognition that despite—or perhaps because of—the challenges of growing old, we actually also tend to develop some amazing strengths.
Not everyone experiences all of these strengths. But studies interviewing hundreds of people of advanced years reveal many commonalities that deserve acknowledgement.
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"I know who I am"
At this point in life, we know ourselves 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.
There’s a certain confidence that comes with aging that is different from the confidence of youth. This 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 20!” The confidence of experience and the reduced anxiety 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.”
“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. 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 a storehouse of experience is that we have exposure to many different situations. We can take a wider view 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 Looking at the brain activity patterns, 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 a wider picture.
If younger adults were to project their perceptions of how happiness unfolds, they might tend to say that happiness is 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, 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 has come to be called the “U-shape of happiness.”
Less emotionally reactive
Some of the likely explanations include greater self-acceptance as we get older, a reduction in 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, “cut the mustard” as it were.
The advantages of age In our older years, we either achieved or didn’t achieve our goals. There is little to worry about in terms of the unknown there. We may have pursued material comforts, only to learn that they were not as gratifying as we had thought. We learn that there is less that is 100% right or 100% 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.
With advancing years, very likely we 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 rests on our horizon. We may get there before we think. And at the least, we realize that we are lucky to have lived as long as we have.
The inner journey
The physical limitations of aging can almost 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. We tend to be more understanding thank in our youth. Resentments we may have had about past grievances—with parents, spouses, children or friends—can seem less important.
Perhaps walking a mile in the shoes of others—elders in our own lives—lends new insight about their behavior. Opens up avenues for forgiveness. 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.
When time is finite
Rather than a prelude to death, many older adults come to realize that advancing years bring life more fully into focus. While we all have a limited tenure on the planet, 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 living by them!
There may be a bucket list of activities yet to pursue. However many 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.