An excerpt from Honest Aging: An Insider’s Guide to the Second Half of Life. Copyright 2023. Published with permission of Johns Hopkins University Press.
The key to aging well lies within you, the attitudes and responses you have to growing older and entering old age. Yes, there will be inevitable physical declines and losses that can transform your life, but as long as you’re alive, there will be new options for improving your well-being, happiness, and sense of purpose. Being resilient, facing challenges, and establishing a new normal can allow you to have a positive outlook about the future, to think outside the box you may find yourself in, and to appreciate the possibilities and joy that can be part of your life.
Old age is a new stage of life. It is not the same as middle age. Your abilities, your desires, and your circumstances are likely to change. What counts is how you deal with these changes. Not all change will be welcomed, but I bet this isn’t the first time in your life you’ve needed to adjust to uninvited change. In my many years of practice as a geriatrician, I’ve seen different responses to aging, from head-in-the-sand ostriches, to obsessive worry warts, to wise old owls.
These are choices. Facing reality head-on, and being open to discover what’s likely to happen, what to expect, and what you can do will help you to turn this stage of your life into a time of growth, meaning, and happiness. But if you buy into the stereotypes and myths, you’ll be at the mercy of the naysayers, including at times your health care providers. Be proactive, creative, and resilient in response to the new situations you will face.
Here are my eight practices for a happier old age, regardless of your current age:
1. Resist ageism. Older adults are commonly portrayed in the media as unattractive, childlike, confused, grumpy, and selfish. I find it so strange that we disparage and are prejudiced against our future selves, since most of us (the lucky ones) will eventually be members of this group. No wonder we’re in denial. Become a role model for aging. You can do this simply by being yourself and telling people your age—you’ll love the look of surprise on their faces.
2. Right-size your expectations. Age doesn’t need to change your passions. You can still be a daily walker or a competitive runner. But if you expect that by working out you will reclaim the speed and strength that you had when you were 40, you’re wrong. Even those in the best shape will walk or run slower as they age. After all, there are Boston Marathon winners of all ages, but the winning time for 20- and 30- year-olds is about two hours, while it’s twice that for 70- to 80-year-olds. Run marathons, walk daily, and work out to slow your age-related loss of speed and strength; just remember to adjust your goals and expectations.
3. Be resilient, adaptable, and flexible. With aging, we lose people, roles, and abilities that have been central to our lives. How we react and respond influences our happiness, contentment, and sense of well-being. Being grateful for what you’ve had—and what you still have—can help your mood and bring your focus more to the present. Compassion, humor, and finding new meaning and purpose can help reestablish a positive outlook. How do you spend your days? Are you doing things that you find meaningful? Getting out daily? Helping other people? Consider volunteering. It’s associated with longer life, better moods, and improved health, and it’s a good way to meet new people and become more engaged in your community. Be proactive, and explore what you might do to reinvigorate your life.
4. Redefine the term “independent.” Independence is an important word to teenagers. It means they can do what they want, on their own. As we age, independence continues to mean being able to do what you want, but you may not be able to do this by yourself, and it can be difficult to accept help. Yet what’s most important to many older adults is to be able to continue meaningful social and spiritual connections. Needing assistance may feel like a threat to your independence, but accepting help can actually allow you to be more independent. Help can come from a person, a device, by learning new skills, or by adjusting your perspective and doing things differently.
5. Never say never. It’s easy to dig in your heels and proclaim you’ll never use a hearing aid, move out of your home, have an aide, or take an antidepressant. What you’re really saying is that change is scary. Any time you face a new change, make a list of the pros and the cons. If possible, do a trial to see what happens. For example, commit to using a walker for three months. Track your activities, your mood, how often you go outside and socialize, and whether you fall. Don’t decide whether you’ll keep using it until the end of the trial. Remember, making a change can be the key to having a more fulfilling and independent life.
6. Advocate for yourself, and allow others to advocate for you. Pain, shortness of breath, nausea, insomnia, sadness, and other symptoms affect your daily life. It’s important to identify and treat the underlying cause of these symptoms, but some symptoms may persist. These symptoms are not without consequences. They can start a spiral where you become less active, get deconditioned and weaker, more tired, depressed . . . the list goes on. Do not accept decline as a part of normal aging. Get help to figure out what’s going on and what can be done to become as symptom-free as possible. Commit to trying the treatments, including therapy (physical, occupational, psychotherapy), medication trials, and behavioral modifications.
7. Select, optimize, and compensate. When you can’t do everything you once did, for whatever reason, remember SOC: select what really matters to you, optimize by practicing and rehearsing what you are able to do, and compensate by using alternative mechanisms and equipment. For example, if there is an evening show you really want to attend but don’t feel you have the energy or stamina, do all you can to get a good night’s sleep the night before: exercise, eat right, and schedule a nap for that afternoon. Consider using an assistive device to get to the event, like a cane, walker, or even a wheelchair, to conserve your energy. Don’t let vanity and pride get in the way of your having a good time!
8. Laugh more. Cultivate your sense of humor, especially about those things that scare you or you can’t control. We all take ourselves sometimes a bit too seriously. Have you ever noticed how many comedians live and continue performing well into old age, and that they are often the butts of their own jokes? Having a sense of humor can help you face the unknown.
Rosanne M. Leipzig is a geriatrician and author of Honest Aging: An Insider’s Guide to the Second Half of Life.