GETTING OLD ISN’T FOR SISSIES!

GETTING OLD ISN’T FOR SISSIES!By Dawn Vollink, LMSW

Coping with aging is a challenge.  And it’s one that’s often not given enough attention in our society.  It’s a stage of life that’s fraught with loss and change and adjustment at a time when we can tend to be set in our ways.  Dealing with this stage of life is not easy.

As we age, we experience loss on many levels.  I remember my mom at age 87, saying that she still felt young inside, but that her body had betrayed her. Aging brings with it many changes physically.  We’re not as strong as we used to be¾eyesight dims, hearing starts to fail.  We reach for a word¾and it’s not there.  Men often find their hair thinning.   Both women and men lose their healthy, in-shape bodies¾which can affect our image of ourselves.  Instead of the tennis matches we once loved, perhaps now we play pickleball, or go for a walk rather than a run.  All of this takes acceptance.  All of this means change and adjustment.  All of this means adapting.

And then, there are personal losses.  We may lose a spouse. We watch our friends as their health fails, and eventually, they leave us.  Support and companionship can dwindle.  The potential for social isolation is very real.  It can be harder to make new friends, or find a new social circle.  And again, we adjust, we adapt.

There is also a shift in identity.  A person’s identity may be significantly connected to their roles as a parent, standout athlete, or career professional. As they age, these things change.  And now there’s a need to figure out, for instance: “If I’m no longer a teacher, who am I?”  Roles between parents and children shift.  The adult children become the caretake.  And that is often not an easy change.  And all the while, the end-of-life looms, calling to be dealt with as well.

So how do we cope with these things?  Here are some suggestions:

  1. STAY CONNECTED. Isolation can be brutal.  Loneliness and depression often set in.  It’s important to have social interaction.  Different people may have differing needs in this area.  Find a church, a book club, or another club that interests you to join. These can be wonderful ways to have a sense of community and support, as well as contact with others on a weekly basis. Set up a regularly scheduled lunch or coffee with a friend.  Reconnect with an old friend.  Facebook can be a good resource here.  If you’ve lost a spouse, there are bereavement groups available.  It can be important to connect with others who can relate to what you’re going through.
  2. STAY ACTIVE. It’s important to have things to do to get you out of the house.  It’s also important to get regular physical exercise.  Exercise can help fight the aging process. It gets your heart going, lowers blood pressure, and also releases endorphins (which fight depression).   It increases physical strength and flexibility.  Make your exercise something you enjoy doing, so that you’re more likely to look forward to it rather than dreading it.  It’s also a great idea to exercise with a friend¾both for the companionship and also to encourage each other.
  3. CHALLENGE YOUR MIND. Find ways to keep your mind sharp.  Doctors recommend changing your daily routine of getting ready each day.  If you do things in the same order (brush teeth, shower, put on makeup or shave, etc.) then it becomes a habit and doesn’t require thought.  Change it up sometimes.  You’ll notice a difference. Find activities that make you think¾read, do crossword puzzles or sudoku.  Learn a new language or skill, pick up a new instrument, find a new hobby, or resume an old one you’d abandoned.  Be creative.  Take a class, go on a Road Scholar experience.  Travel to someplace new, even if it’s just a day trip.
  4. ENGAGE IN THINGS THAT ARE MEANINGFUL. This can mean doing volunteer work and giving back in some way. It can be having a deep conversation with a trusted friend. Find books that call to you. Keep a journal.  Write a memoir.  Be still with your thoughts and feelings.  If we’re too busy, there’s no time for your inner self to catch up with you.  Aging is a stage of life when there are so many things to think about, so many feelings arise.  It’s important to experience these and not avoid them. Share your feelings with a trusted person, or even a therapist.  Feelings kept inside often turn into depression.  Find a way to feed the spiritual part of you.  Again, this could be organized religion; but it can also be meditating regularly, or discussing spiritual struggles or life questions with a friend or small group that’s interested in doing the same thing.
  5. ATTITUDE. Work on accepting the changes that come with this stage of life.  Work WITH the changes, not AGAINST them. Be realistic about your present capabilities, and pace yourself.  There are so many losses, but it’s important to focus on the things you still have in your life, the things you still can do.  Appreciate the little things in life¾a beautiful sunset, a walk in the woods, a thoughtful gesture from a friend. Be compassionate and patient with yourself.  What you’re experiencing would be hard for anybody.  It takes time to adjust.  It takes time to adapt.

If you’re struggling with any of these processes, talking to a therapist or joining a therapy group can help.  Your approach to aging can make all the difference. I came across a quote recently from an anonymous source that I liked a lot. It goes like this: “Youth is an act of nature; age is a work of art.”  Become an artist…

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