Aging into “older” years is often feared and imagined as a sad time primarily marked by losses. The losses begin slowly—for most in their late 40’s: The graying and loss of hair and development of hearing and vision issues; loss of our ideal body image as we lose muscle mass and gain unwanted fat; loss of roles in leadership and power positions within the community and workforce. These may seem significant yet they pale in comparison to the losses yet to come: Of loved ones who precede us in death; of independence as we give up our driver’s license; of dignity as we find ourselves relying on others to help us overcome limitations caused by physical and/or cognitive losses; of our image of “home” as people move into our home to care for us or we move to assisted living facilities. The Government and science dwell on these losses. The Government worries about how to address the wave of Boomers that will all too soon become “needy” for financial support. Science sees dollars and interesting challenges in improving and prolonging life.
Interestingly, at any age or developmental stage, we can measure life by losses rather than gains. Our 30’s—a time of infinite possibilities for many—often includes tremendous loss as we begin our families: Decreased expendable income resulting from the medical bills, day care and education; the concern of childhood illnesses; increased expenses, demanding careers can leave us worried and sleepless. In our late 40’s we are often “empty nested” and find ourselves financially struggling in order to pay for college; perhaps we must downsize our home. Nevertheless, most see this time not in loss but rather as new opportunities to travel, to re-engage with our spouse, to identify a new lifestyle, to get back to a healthy body.
Why is it we aren’t as willing to embrace the opportunities of late life as we are in our younger years? Perhaps because in our 30’s, 40’s and 50’s we have so much life ahead to change our direction, to make new decisions, to experience “more”. Life abounds with external opportunities to prove our limitless selves. In our 70’s and 80’s and beyond, the runway is getting shorter and we become a science and we re bombarded with messages of “age as loss”. Nevertheless research has shown that there are tremendous gifts available to us in our older years that are unavailable to younger adults.
These gifts include the beauty of solitude: of a time when we can spend long hours reflecting on the meaning and purpose of our lives, explore our creative selves, participate in the joy and promise of spirituality. Older adults tend not to dwell on “what if” or “if only”, nor do they become stuck on the “not so good decisions” they made in younger years. Instead life shows itself as a rich integration of each and every experience—the good and not so good decisions. They come together to make us who we have become. This quiet time of reflection, of letting go of the materialistic and even power over our own bodies is a gift that can bring comfort and peace to guide us through the challenging terrain of aging into our final years.
As with any developmental stage of life, this path to an enlightened older self isn’t a direct path and it isn’t automatic or even easy. There is no denying that those experiencing older years will suffer physically and emotionally. However, as we give up control and power, we attain the ultimate gift: the wise spiritual self who is now freed to imagine and embrace that which is yet to come.
The older adult may need support in finding this time as “gift” rather than loss. But that is another blog. If you want ideas about how to support the enjoyment of being an older adult or how to support your parents’ opportunity in older years, watch for my next blog: “Enjoying the Gifts of Aging”.