Ageing vibrantly
By Dr Jennifer Bestel
I enjoy talking with very old people. They have gone before us on a road by which we, too, may have to travel, and I think we do well to learn from them what it is like.
-Socrates, in Plato's The Republic
How can I, as a young woman, write about old age? I do not know what that road feels like as I have yet to walk down it. Yet, I have known many wise, caring, and vibrant older people in my life. They light my way.
To begin with, what is ageing? Webster's Dictionary defines it as:
adj : growing old
n 1 : the organic process of growing older and showing the effects of increasing age
2 : acquiring desirable qualities by being left undisturbed for some time [syn: ripening].
What can be learned about ageing from Webster's definition? The definition suggests that both decline and maturation are part of ageing. Also, Webster tells us that ageing is a desirable, natural process of life that involves change.
While changes are part of every stage of human life, the changes of old age have their own flavour and tone.
Within western culture, thoughts about ageing seem to lean toward the first part of Webster's definition. Old age is equated with an inevitable, slow decline. People associate ageing with nursing homes, immobility, unhealthy dependence, memory loss and loss of zest for life. Rarely do people think that old age could be a desirable time of maturation and ripening. Is longer life, made possible by modern medicine, a blessing or a curse? Are the vibrant older people in my life exceptional? In order to answer these questions, let's look at some myths and facts about ageing.
Myth 1: Getting old means losing your mental sharpness.
The prevalence of Alzheimer's disease is 5% for people 65 and over, 16% for 80 and over and 24% for 85 and older. Still, that means that the vast majority of 80 year olds don't have Alzheimer's disease. Also, the mental decline that accompanies ageing is milder than what most people imagine. Age-linked memory decline seems to be limited to a person's ability to store new information. There is little evidence of decline in older people's ability to recognize or do things previously learned. Furthermore, people can prevent some mental decline by exercising the brain. You can exercise your brain by doing things like playing cards, word games or chess. You could also read, learn a new language or learn to play an instrument.
Myth 2: Older people are less healthy than younger people.
Due to improved medical care, 75% of people aged 75-84 report no disability at all. Older people are at a higher risk for illness and disease because body weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels increase while bone density and immune functioning decline. These changes occur mainly due to poor lifestyle choices rather than as inevitable changes due to ageing.
Living healthily can stop or reverse the changes once blamed on ageing. If you eat a balanced diet (reduce fat intake and increase vegetables/fruits) and regularly exercise, it will help keep you disease free and strong as you age. In one study, 70-year-old men who had done strength training since middle age were just as strong on average as 28 year olds who hadn't exercised.
Myth 3: Older people are less happy than younger people. Relatively few older people fall into despair.
Research studies have shown that people in their 80s or 90s are less likely than middle-aged and younger people to report negative feelings like depression, hopelessness and anxiety. Other studies on mood have shown that older respondents were more likely to report happiness, cheerfulness and good spirits.
Myth 4: Older people are lonely and unproductive.
Despite the widespread notion that legions of elderly people live in nursing homes, only about 5% of people over the age of 65 actually do and the numbers are dropping. Most seniors are active. One in three have a paying job, one in three regularly participate in volunteer activities and the majority of seniors engage in a meaningful activity like gardening or caring for grandchildren. Furthermore, most seniors have frequent contact with families and friends.
Given the above facts, the vibrant older people I know probably aren't exceptional. They are just healthy. Older people can be healthy, social, and productive. Roses fade but the harvest is enjoyed for a much longer time. Perhaps old age is like harvest time. Given that joyful aging is a strong possibility, how can we increase our chances of healthy ageing?
The first part of aging well involves having a healthy lifestyle. Physical health can be accomplished through regular exercise and a balanced, nutritious diet. Exercise can simply be enjoying how the body can move; through dancing, walking, gardening or playing with children. A healthy body means that we can complete daily chores and have energy left over for play. Good physical health also means not smoking and showing restraint with regard to alcohol and food. But health is much more than how the body functions. The second part of ageing well involves psychological health. Freud elegantly defined psychological health as ‘the ability to love and to work'. In terms of love, Freud might be saying that we need to be in relationships with others to share daily events, life's tragedies and joys and to have people to play with. In terms of work, we also need to do something meaningful with our time, contribute to society, to productively use our brains, hearts and bodies.
Does our need to love and work change as we age? It seems that the simple answer is ‘no'. However, how we go about loving and working changes as we age.
To explain the changes in older loving and working, it is helpful to introduce the ideas of Erik Erikson - a psychologist who was interested in how adults continue to develop psychologically as they age. Erikson observed that people struggle with a variety of psychological stages throughout life. During each stage there is an important developmental issue to be addressed. People grow when they successfully address these developmental issues. According to Erikson, the developmental tasks of old age are Generativity and Integrity.
Simply put, Generativity means actively caring for the next generation. In older age, it means adopting the roles of elder friend, consultant or mentor. It can also mean being a loving and involved grandparent. Generativity has the future, rather than present, in mind. Psychologist George Vaillant, in his book Ageing Well, summarises Generativity when he writes, ‘Biology flows downhill. Parents should take care of their children'.
Caring for the next generation does not imply only caring for children. Generativity includes caring for younger colleagues. Thus, a successful school principal was said to have ‘looked after not only his students, but as he matured, the young faculty'.
Erikson called the second developmental task of older age Integrity. Integrity involves accepting one's life, warts and all, as something unique that had to be. The culmination of Integrity is a sense of wisdom that says, 'My life happened for a reason. I learned important things from it'. It is also acceptance of some of the decline of old age with grace and dignity. Integrity may be best summed up in the words of Florida Scott Maxwell.
So how can the ideas of Generativity and Integrity be applied to our lives?
The following are suggestions for successful ageing presented by George Vaillant.
Suggestion 1: Caring for others Care for others by actively listening to their concerns and interests.
Be open to new ideas. Maintain social utility and helpfulness. Remember that 'biology flows downhill'. Don't demand that your children care for you, take care of your children. Taking care of the next generation can also include doing volunteer or committee work, or becoming a mentor or consultant.
Suggestion 2: Tolerate Aging Try to cheerfully tolerate the indignities of old age.
Acknowledge and gracefully accept help when you need it. Whenever possible, turn difficult situations into life-giving ones. I once heard an older man say, 'I have a hard time remembering things like what I had for breakfast. But that just means that I am rarely ever bored and often pleasantly surprised!'
Suggestion 3: Hope Maintain hope in life and insist on doing things for yourself when you are able.
Recognize that life is a continuous journey. Consider the following poem:
At 50 I knew the biddings of heaven
At 60 I heard them with a docile ear
At 70 I could follow the dictates of my own heart, for what I desired no longer overstepped the boundaries of right.
Suggestion 4: Cultivate Your Sense of Humour Retain your sense of humour and playfulness.
Suggestion 5: Stay Mentally Active Spend time reflecting about the past and take sustenance from your past accomplishments.
Consider writing your Life Story so that the next generation can benefit from your wisdom and accomplishments. Remain curious and learn from the next generation. Consider joining an historical society or doing genealogy research.
Suggestion 6: Stay Socially Active Continue to share time, interests and feelings with life-long friends and family.
Develop new relationships as well.
While ageing can include elements of decline it can also be a desirable time of mature joy and love. To close, I have quoted from the movie, Hopscotch. In the quoted scene, actors Walter Mathau and Glenda Jackson discuss how desirable it can be to age.
As a general rule older wines are better. You see, it takes time for the elements in wine to resolve themselves into an harmonious whole. It takes time and oxygen.
Erikson, E. (1963). Childhood and Society. W.W Norton & Company, Inc.
Kenel, M.E. (2005). Personal strengths and the aging process. Human Development, 26(1), 5-11.
Vaillant G. (2002). Ageing Well. Scribe Publications, Melbourne
DR JENNIFER BESTEL recently joined the Encompass Team as a full-time clinical psychologist. She trained in the United States and has Masters and Doctoral degrees in Clinical Psychology.
- from The Encompass Connection, June 2005

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