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The privilege of growing older

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While there are many difficulties that confront us as we age, growing older is a privilege denied so many. We might as well enjoy it! Make merry and make memories!

As an older person I face many of the same challenges that ageing presents to others in this cohort – siblings, friends and acquaintances – and am able to empathise sympathetically with them.

At this end of life, what becomes more evident by the day, is that the level of difficulty we face tends to be a function of the quality of earlier decisions that now compound rapidly.  As diminishments increase (we lose hair, teeth, mobility, marbles, confidence, friends and family) and we make gains (weight, ailments, aches, impatience), marking our losses and limitations, we are daily reminded of how little time is left. My friends and I joke when replacing essential new equipment – vacuum cleaner, car, TV – “That will see me out!”

Good humour and a vital interest in others and in the world can spur the new memories still to be made, even as peers become frail, less mobile and conversation limited. It is as well to look to younger cohorts, where feasible, to maintain the links and affirmation of life. An outgoing nature is an attribute at any stage of life.

Yet, anxiety and denial can cloud reality, especially when critical changes occur, whether planned like downsizing, or unexpected significant health incidents, even decline to death of those near and dear.

When faced with multiple, concurrent challenges, the impact can be overwhelming. A person may become paralysed with indecision, depressed or self-absorbed, unwilling or unable to make the effort necessary to wade through the issues confronting us at such a vulnerable time of life. Yet we must get through the morass to discover the new self and new life that awaits, even at this late stage.

What I found helpful

My particular mantra is “deal with reality”. If you are feeling that life is almost too tough, it probably is. That is not the time to give in – oh, well, maybe take a bit of extra self-indulgence! Being older, I still use old-fashioned technology and pencil and paper are fine for what I suggest:

  1. Take a writing pad and mark into three columns – Plus column; minus column; and what can be done column.
  2. Be honest with yourself and write down in the appropriate column (plus or minus) what the issue or the problem is (there may be many). Don’t fudge as you do with an enquiry from others. Be honest. Some issues have both plus and minus aspects: write these down too.
  3. In the “what can be done column” write down what you believe can be done to resolve that issue or problem (by you or others), how long that might take, and what it would cost.

Writing the issues down clarifies why you “feel” the way you do. If you have been feeling “down” and note from your lists that there are numerous crises or challenges, then your feelings may be justified. Name them. Own them. Mourn your losses. Otherwise you may never get past them.

Writing down “what can be done” paves the way for assertive action essential to moving forward with your life in the most generative way. Perhaps there is nothing that can be done, or at least, nothing that can be done right away. Some things resolve over time without action. Acknowledge that. I know from experience that, for instance, grief takes its own course. When my husband of 34 years died a year after having been diagnosed with an incurable illness, I felt the grief as weariness in my bones that no amount of rest could cure. It took time, routine and assertive action. Each day I rose, took a walk, had a swim and attended to the day’s routine tasks, so that by the time grief had passed, I was fit and ready for the next phase of my life.

Be slow to seek chemical aids (anti-depressants) for crisis, but if found necessary, limit their use – the reason being that if we are to live life to the full, then it is best to be honest about the best and the worst of it. Naming the loss, the diminishment, is part way to healing. Letting go of things or people who have been dear to you, releases new energy to deal with what will be a different future. Assuming responsibility for taking assertive action is the way towards exit from the crisis.

Another important aspect of the recommended “solution” is marking off what has been achieved and what crises has been averted or dealt with. Add a fluoro pen to your stationery stock of pad and pencil and use it to mark off attainment of goals and issues overcome. Visual image of progress affirms the reality of progress in your life and nudges you to celebrate your strength and capacity to overcome.

Crisis and change

I have found that having an understanding of the structure of crisis has been helpful in self-identifying where I am at with any particular challenge and how to proceed. It may also be helpful to you, whatever age you are.

The Whiteheads explain the structure of crisis as: (a) entry; (b) duration; (c) resolution; and (d) exit[1]:

  1. Entry: Unexpectedness of a crisis is a key indicator of its likely severity.
  2. Duration of the crisis is marked by confusion and disorientation, like being in the tunnel of the wave. Loss is a significant factor, inviting re-examination and reorientation of life, marking the end of a stage of life and a “letting go” of things no longer relevant.
  3. Successful resolution may take the form of assertive decisions and action or a more passive realisation that the work of mourning (loss) and personal re-organisation has been completed.
  4. The final stage of crisis is exit, when the person moves beyond to a new stage of life and a new sense of self.

Understanding the stages of crisis and change helps to identify where we are at. Having someone to pace us through the most difficult period can be a blessing, showing we are not alone and possibly staving off the worst of outcomes. Help from others cheering us on does not relieve us from responsibility for making choices and assuming responsibility for affecting a positive outcome that will find us refreshed and renewed to face the future, even if tentatively, at first.

Advantage of making sound decisions

A distinct advantage in later years is good decision-making skills acquired over a life time. Having observed many of my peers facing major disjunction in their lives owing to illness, death of loved ones, onset of disabilities or moving house to downsize, the ability to make sound decisions is a distinct advantage not always well developed.

My decision-making model, the Maturity Model (link), can be helpful in clarifying expectations, choice and responsibilities as people face the challenge and negotiate change – in circumstances and relationships. The model can be used to empowering effect in relationships as they change.

Often elderly who have given a lot over a lifetime are reluctant to ask for help. When help is offered they can be stubborn and ungracious in declining. Yet maturity at the later stages of life involves acceptance of the realities as well as the assistance generously offered. Furthermore, offering assistance to our elderly is a mark of maturity of those who have benefited from largesse from their elders, so long as the help offered allows the elderly to make decisions pertinent to them and their lives. Haste and hustle are confounding for elders – they need time to make decisions and attain the outcome desired.

Any request for help needs to be framed as administrative – more like a transaction – rather than as an obligation with emotional overtones that can seed resentment. A brief statement of need and timeframe for delivery is a good step.

Resources developed in young adulthood may need to be refreshed – intimacy and mutuality, intuition, tolerance, flexibility, friendship and cooperation. Refreshing these personal resources can help stave off the tendency to set ways, that, when challenged can arouse hostility or offence. A predisposition to offence or accusation is a sure way to lose friends – a significant loss in later years as networks shrink.

Above all, a disposition open to joy is an advantage in later years, as it helps to keep open the channel to adult children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, each of which provides an affirmation of the worth of our lives.

For more understanding of the challenges of ageing you can read my book Becoming: the ordinary person’s road map to life’s big decisions. Some of the biggest decisions we have to confront arise in our later, more vulnerable years.

[1] Whitehead, EE & JD, Christian Life Patterns, Image/Doubleday, March 1982, p35.

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