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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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),
Vaillant G. (2002). Ageing Well. Scribe Publications, Melbourne http://www.mydr.com.au
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
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