“Is anything else bothering you,” I asked my patient recovering from a bout of pneumonia. “Yes, my age,” this once-vigorous woman, now in her early 70s, amusingly confided to me.
Our routine life is dominated by work up until the age of around 60 or 65, at which point, many of us have the “luxury” of entering retirement. What happens to many of us, though, is a bout of identity loss, a sense of purposelessness and an irrational fear of looming mortality. We spend the majority of our lives focused on our identity at work – proving our worth based on our ability to fill every moment of every day with tasks. This mentality leads to a retirement filled with a sense of disappointment, a lack of drive and the burden of loneliness.
Despite our best attempts to make our retirement meaningful, we often can’t help but to begin sledding down a slippery slope of mental and physical degeneration. We begin to look back on our lives, spotlighting regrets, ignoring any sense of our ability to move forward.
Aging, these days, is seen as a disability. The current appreciation of elders is at best typified by “cute.” The modern world paints aging with strokes of vulnerability, painful physical diminishment, picturing a lonely, dependent life bound to a nursing home. The parts of the world we relegate as the “old world,” though, have a different connotation for the elderly. For them, age is a badge of honor, serenity and wisdom.
While we’ve mastered the art of achievement, we’ve struggled to appreciate the simple acts of enjoying the fruits of our labor. Put simply, we fumble at the art of being, the art of feeling like we’re enough within. We tend to conceive life as a vestibule, a preparation for the life in paradise – preparing for the future during all of our stages of life from childhood, youth and maturity to old age. Our lives are increasingly dedicated to preparing for the future instead of enjoying the present. Even into our retirement, when we are supposed to be able to sit back and relax, we habitually desire to seek satisfaction from external pleasures and possessions.Retirement seems to disengage us from the bounds of social routines and pulls the carpet of the nine-to-five habitual grind from beneath us. Those of us who primarily define ourselves based on the value of our professional life have a particularly hard time breaking away from the social addiction. This extends to even professional sportsmen and women who come to live their lives according to the expectations of others, which is why they go through the agony of loneliness and lack of stimulation from constant appreciation and public adoration when they retire from professional sports.
But those who see the big picture of life will come to realize that there is one invaluable thing that only elders can offer. A perspective that should not be ignored. They have the ability to analyze a life of career, marriage and stability and understand the necessity of each social institution and how they can be improved. They can look at life in the most macro sense – finding patterns that provide us insight into our greater purpose, harvesting wisdom of experience to pass on to future generations. For instance, studies show that grandparents have a real, measurable impact on the psychological wellbeing of their grandchildren long into their adulthood, and vice versa. Emotionally close grandparents and grandchildren show fewer symptoms of depression than those without that bond.
Do you know that health isn’t necessarily the most prominent indicator of happiness in aging?
For elders to play such a pivotal role, they have to adapt to the changing dynamics of today by willingly relinquishing some of the stereotypical and fossilized ideas of the past. They have to choose to be active and engaged going forward. In fact, research has proven that this is good for the health of the aging brain. Those who continue to be stimulated, be it socially, mentally or physically, demonstrate stronger cognitive performance than those who do not.
Until recently, researchers focused on understanding ways in which the brain compensates for cognitive decline. Today, focus is on prevention – how to avoid age-related memory loss in the first place. Yes, genetics play a strong role – but research suggests that our life choices play a truly critical role in our ongoing mental health.
What are the keys to effective aging?
Studies show that health isn’t necessarily the most prominent indicator of happiness in aging. Optimism, though, is a much better measure of health and wellness. With age, it seems that attitude is everything.
Another factor of successful aging is involvement – hobbies and socializing can help to make or break the aging process. There are no shortcuts to finding happiness in the autumn of our lives. A shift in our paradigm from seeing aging as physical infirmity to viewing it as another opportunity to offer valuable contributions to the family and society is the key to finding bliss. Aging is a phase each of us must come to terms with. Ultimately, we live a fuller life only if we stop striving to live longer.
Successful aging means seeing opportunities to contribute to family, society