“Aging isn’t a battle, it’s a massacre,” Philip Roth wrote. “The inevitable onslaught that is the end of life…it’s the commonness that’s most wrenching, the registering once more of the fact of death that overwhelms everything.”
True, physical diminishment is an inescapable element of aging — but research indicates that growing old is a continuum of chronological, biological, and psychological factors. Aging is a natural experience which does not have to be completely overshadowed by dark forces.
“The late stages of life can be just as rewarding, even more so, than the previous parts,” Paul Irving, specialist in elderly studies, asserted. He pointed to a 2020 Stanford University survey of Americans between the ages of 18 and 76 that found aging to be associated with emotional wellbeing.
Irving explained that seniors, through the school of hard knocks, have developed superior coping strategies that serve as sources of strength and peace of mind.
“Older adults have experienced pain before,” he said. “The shocks and disappointments that come over the years, the failures and rejections have made them stronger. They have rebounded from setbacks, overcome hardships, and they know loss.” Importantly, they have learned the values of acceptance and tolerance of unpleasant or painful situations.
“Aging people have this collective wisdom …to apply the learnings of their longer lives to solve difficult problems,” Irving concluded.
Issues about aging have become more consequential because of the unprecedented graying of our population. More than 45 million Americans are now over the age of 65 — as the baby boomers roll on and medical procedures improve, this number will continue to ascend meteorically.
Here’s the census bureau on these developments: “The first baby boomers reached 65 in 2011. Since then, there’s a rapid increase in size of the 65-and-older population, which grew by over a third since 2010. No other age group saw such a fast increase.”
Given these circumstances, what are people facing when they hit 65? Currently, the public is uninformed about the details of these matters: “Aging is something we all do but we understand very little about it,” Dr. Mark Stibich said.
People need to be prepared psychologically for the anatomical deterioration ahead— thickening of the lens in the eye makes reading more difficult; skin bruises, wrinkles, and loses its elasticity; and bones become weaker as they reduce in size. Mother Nature challenges every organ of the body.
“It is 100% unavoidable,” Dr. Stibich noted. There are lifestyle changes—healthy diet, no smoking, exercise, all things in moderation—that can mitigate the impact, but mitigation is postponement, not evasion.
The good news is that the psychological dimension of aging, which is at least as important as any factor, is within the sphere of human control. Embracing aging, not just tolerating it, may lengthen life and improve the quality of that time.
A Yale study conducted by Dr. Becca Levy found that those who had a more positive self-perception of aging survived longer than those who held negative views — the difference was more than 7 years of life (longer than the positive impact of maintaining low blood pressure).
Other research has yielded similar results. “My advice to friends is simple,” said Dr. Ellen Langer, a psychology professor at Harvard. “It’s not your physical state that limits you, it’s your mind-set…your attitude can improve your health and may even reverse the signs of aging.”
Psychiatrist George Valliant, who served as Director of the Study of Adult Development at Harvard, said that Americans may have been oversold on how great youth is versus maturity. “It’s taken me years to learn to live reasonably well,” he commented. It is up to seniors to appreciate the value of experience.
The affirmative attitude that emerges from the works of Doctors Levy, Langer, and Valliant is characterized by acceptance, optimism, and purpose–acceptance of physical limitations, optimism that life after 65 is a fulfilling journey, and finding purpose in some positive contribution, no matter how large or small.
Valliant said it well: “Old age is knowing what I am doing, having respect for others, loving my wife and family and realizing that what I cannot beat, I can endure.”