Getting older can feel like ducking a steady stream of blows – hits to our looks, career, relationships and sex lives. Here, four tricks to stay positive and make aging work for you.
Getting older can feel like ducking a steady stream of blows – hits to our looks, career, relationships and sex lives, and a shuffled deck of players and roles within our family, friends and communities. These losses are an affront to the upward trajectory we imagined. Didn’t we all picture ourselves sailing into the future on a wave of shiny successes?
As we age, the identities of a lifetime are challenged from without and within. The rearview mirror is cruel. We all remember the first time we noticed the softening jawline or the pudge in the change room. Aging is like a bad selfie reflecting back a stranger. We carry the image of ourselves at some mystical moment of our youth, and the mirror betrays us.
We need a mass adjustment of attitude to help rebrand aging as desirable. In North America, where we grow older in greater isolation from our clans, we use money to “solve” aging: trainers and coaches, diets, the plucking and pruning beauty regimes that lead to ever-more extreme interventions to turn back the clock.
And, of course, there is always hope in a jar, in the form of pricey creams spiked with the latest anti-aging miracle, from bee pollen to dragon’s blood to snail slime. Of course, healthy habits are critical, and looking good leads to feeling good. But it shouldn’t come at the cost of our confidence in ourselves as to who we are.
Feeling good comes from the inside, and that needs to come from a societal shift. For all our progress, it is frustrating that we once did things right in this human race.
In ancient Greece and Rome, elders were always venerated. Native North Americans passed on respect for the aging process, and elders passed on traditions and advice. The Confucian influence in China and Korea created filial traditions that many Eastern societies respect to this day. Some two-thirds of Japanese elders live with their children, and there is even a Respect for the Aged Day. Elders are often the leaders of extended South Asian families.
And Mediterranean and Latin cultures also centre around integrated family units and who share duties. African-American traditions celebrate death as a homecoming, and this imbues respect for age.
But times are changing everywhere, not necessarily for the better. France had to pass a “keep-in-touch” law in 2004 mandating that children check on their aging parents. A similar Elderly Rights Law was adopted in China in 2013 that puts urban kids who don’t go home to visit their families in rural areas at risk of being sued.
Our experience of aging is very much a function of whether the society we live in views aging as a positive or negative thing. But there are tricks and habits we can use to inject positivity into all aspects of life, and we spoke to experts on how to rewrite our own aging narratives.
Here, four ways to give aging the finger
It takes a village, and nothing can shake your core more than losing members of your team, for any reason.
“Life is hard, and none of us will get out of it alive…just make sure you don’t have to go through it alone.”
This quote, from Sue Johnson, creator of EFT (Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy), sums up the critical nature of the support systems we rely on. It was cited by psychotherapist and director of Toronto’s Family Life Centre, Marion Goertz, who spends much of her time working with what she calls “our clans” to repair rifts.
“Connections, dependencies and geographic circles change. Often as we age, the familiar is increasingly replaced by what we can optimistically consider to be the formative. Treasure the good people in your life and invest in them consistently and grieve them well when they are gone. Rebuild and repair when possible,” she says, “parents, siblings, relatives, friends, when a new story is possible, seek to write it together. Replacements are sometimes harder to find.”
But to be open to receiving, first you have to find peace with yourself, says Goertz. “Enjoy your own company,” she says. “Learn to play by yourself, but don’t isolate. You have too much to learn and to teach to waste any time.”
Some helpful suggestions for aging well, thriving and not just surviving life’s stages come from people at the other end of the life cycle, she says. Approach the world like a toddler: “Touch, taste and never stop asking questions or trying to find a new way of doing things. Notice how much more you know and can do today than you did yesterday, and look at gain versus loss.”
Watching her three-year-old grandson, she says, summarizes everything you need to know about aging well: “Tell me what I missed, tell me more, show me, watch me, talk to me, be present. Doors unopened equal parts of yourself unexplored.”
But when the inevitable changes in your personal lineup come, says Goertz, you must be prepared to replenish. “Choose well. Pick the red ones, the colourful, passionate ones, friends and family connections that span the life cycle. If you restrict your inner circle to the people who are just like you in terms of age, stage, culture and creed, your capacity to live and learn will be stunted, and you may very well end up alone and lonely.”
Similarly, you have to weed your garden, and get rid of people and things that no longer bring you joy, like Kondo-ing (stripping down possesions à la decluttering guru Marie Kondo) but with community. This is what Goertz calls rechoosing.
“Spit out the sour, bitter, selfish ones. Sometimes the broken ones require a different set of skills, and it’s okay to tell yourself that, ‘I didn’t cause this and I can’t fix this’ when you’ve tried your best and you need a rest.” We all have those friends, and wouldn’t we all be freer if we could learn to handle that guilt?
That process is part of learning to grieve all manner of losses well, says Goertz. “Cry when it hurts. Losing someone important is worth as many tears as you can manage. Grieve well and safely. Then when you’re feeling a little more confident, get up, dust yourself off and get back into the dance…before the music stops for good!”
Get your groove on
The most important thing to remember as we age within relationships, says Rebecca Rosenblat, a Canadian psychotherapist, author and TV host who specializes in relationships and sexuality, “is to make peace with your body. Sexiness is not about the body you have, it’s about the attitude you have toward whatever body you’ve got!” And your partner is surely fretting too: “Each of us is so focused on our own bodily changes that we forget that our partner is dealing with their own changes.”
Rosenblat recommends appreciating what is better later in life. “We get depressed when we fight change, versus embracing it and making the most of it. Most women get a second wind after they put their expected landmarks to rest. So I always suggest that people focus on the fact that they likely have more time and money and less bills and responsibilities, so they should take advantage of that and do what they’d always wanted to do—solo and together.”
The key to a deeper understanding of your partner is to put yourself in their shoes. “Give each other the space to grow,” says Rosenblat, “and encourage each other to fulfill dreams.” But some of this you have to take responsibility for, and take care of, yourself. “I’m always amazed when someone tells me that their partner seems to have lost interest in them since they let themselves go. I ask them, ‘Do you think you’ve let yourself go? Would you want to date someone like yourself—mind, body, and soul?’ This often leads to the ‘aha moment,’ which makes them realize that they have to make some life changes, versus getting upset with their partner for not enabling them in the name of love and acceptance.”
You have to commit to it like you would to a new career or hobby. We take courses, hire trainers, coaches and pros, hit the gym, but we expect our relationship to fall into place without any effort. And reconnecting is the same process as connecting: put the same effort into your old relationship as you would a brand new one.
In practical terms, Rosenblat says write it down. “I make couples do a life mission statement, then come up with a two-year, five-year and 10-year plan together. The idea is to take each change and write a new script for it, to create a new story. If there’s something you can no longer manage, treat it like an allergy and work around it! And make sure that your expectations are realistic and attainable—fighting reality causes distress and disappointment. Thinking positive thoughts is one thing; having a realistic game plan quite another.”
So what do you want to be when you grow up? What you do with your time is at the core of your identity. “We see more and more people working well past 65,” says Alan Kearns, president of the job search and career change company CareerJoy, which has locations from Halifax to Vancouver.
“People are living longer with better health. That means that at any age, you need to figure out what you really want to do next. It is only natural to look for more fulfilling work later in life. Work is extremely stressful, so you have that practical reality of needing to be in the right situation.”
We hire trainers to build our bodies, go to doctors to build our health, hire builders to renovate our homes. So why would we think we can fully self-manage our careers, the wellspring of our income, safety, self-esteem and sense of contribution to the world?
It is hard to see past our own egos and misconceptions to understand what we are really good at or really like, says Kearns. He cites a survey by Gallup StrengthsFinder that showed “83 per cent of professionals didn’t have a precise sense of their strength and interests. People don’t know what they don’t know.”
Working with a career coach is a place to start working out how you look to other people and how to change that. It is important to understand your failures. “Over 50, you are generally in a more competitive environment. Your industry may have changed faster than you have. As a mature professional, you have lots to offer. But you have to position yourself properly as a seasoned professional.”
And if you are coming back to the workforce after a long absence or looking for a second career or volunteering fit, the world has changed, and this may be a good place to go all North American on the problem and hire advisers.
“It used to be just about being good at your job and people would come to you,” says Kearns. “Today, you have to develop a plan. List the risks and barriers to entry and any points of resistance you may encounter to limit your potential.”
Kearns suggests that career counsellors such as his company have a good business case for the investment of time and money to learn how to market and brand yourself. “Treat it seriously and approach it seriously.
We have tools to help you drill down to see what your talents and preferences are. It takes a neutral third party, like a doctor interpreting test results, to help you make smarter career or continuing education choices. And then going back in for check ups and ongoing support.” Kind of like a checkup and an oil change.
One investment in yourself and image that you can’t afford to ignore is your social media presence. Be aware that clients, employers and peers—not to mention friends and romantic interests—are Googling you. So you had best burnish your online presence. There are pros—or your kids and grandkids—to help you negotiate these new frontiers as they shift, and they can help you set up foolproof systems so even the most technologically inept can appear fluent. Your smartphone is your computer, and nothing will keep you out of the loop more than not staying up to speed.
Stay the course
We all feel keenly the loss of control that comes with the bad hands we get dealt with our health as we age. Vulnerability reminds us of our mortality, something we tamp down deeper in the psyches of our youth.
That said, there are a number of things you can do to improve your odds, and staying positive is right at the top of the list.
Dr. Don Melady is the geriatric lead in the Schwartz-Reisman Emergency Department at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital and an assistant professor in the faculty of medicine at the University of Toronto. Melady often sees patients on the worst days of their lives. Or to paraphrase Dr. Art Sanders, who wrote Emergency Care of the Elder Person, an older person’s emergency room visits are often sentinel events that reveal important conditions or situations.
While Melady says that one of the biggest determinants of health is good luck, “social determinants and lifestyle are what we can control. And a healthy attitude is probably going to make managing the challenges of aging easier to cope with.” He concludes that support is the key to good outcomes. “Support networks are the most important social determinants of health,” he says. “Having a robust, or any, support network is extremely valuable to staying healthy.”
A prescription to “be positive” has its limits: it is perhaps hardest to be positive if you are having issues with mental health. And getting your head in order, a “checkup from the neck up,” as Dr. Nasreen Khati at the Rotman Research Institute puts it, is the first step on the road to sunnier days. It is also intimately tied to your physical health. “Studies show that chronic physical disorders, such as hypertension, arthritis, diabetes and heart disease,” she says, “increase the risk of developing depression and vice versa and exacerbate pre-existing conditions.”
Depression can also lead to more dire outcomes. When Khati led the Mood Disorders Clinic at Baycrest, the No. 1 diagnostic question was “Is this depression or dementia?” she says. “After a while, I began to wonder what the neural connection between the two might be. In 2012, I joined [Rotman], a cognitive neuroscience institute in Toronto, to study this question.” Her current research is studying the impact of depression and anxiety on the aging brain and tailoring non-drug treatments such as CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) for older adults.
“We know that individuals with a history of untreated depression at mid-life and beyond are at twice the risk of developing dementia later in life,” she says. “Taking care of your mental health in mid-life may contribute to staving off dementia later in life.” The keys to preserving good mental health she says are eating right, sleeping well, and having social connectedness and meaning.
Studies show that all things being equal, Khati says, “as long as a person is mentally and physically healthy and financially stable, that person is more likely to be happy at 70 years old than 30 years old. It is a myth that as we get older, we get sadder.” In fact, a Yale study she cites concluded that the right attitude can add, on average, seven years to your life.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2016 issue with the headline, “How to Give Aging the Finger,” p. 52-55.