· Illustration by Carey Sookocheff
Stereotypes about getting older can make a natural process stressful. Here’s how to stop those negative messages from clouding the years ahead.
Expert Source: Debbie Grovum, MS, a Sarasota, Fla.–based certified personal, career, and retirement coach who blogs at Ageinista (www.ageinista.com).
If we’re lucky, we get older. Yet, as grateful as we might be for each passing year, that doesn’t always make the effects of aging easier to accept. The diminishing of some physical and mental abilities, the feeling that we may be less attractive, the increased odds of age-related disease — not to mention the know-ledge that life’s going to end at some point whether we like it or not — all can produce anxiety. Add to that our culture’s tendency to worship youth and encourage the endless pursuit of its appearance and you have a recipe for despair.
Still, hopelessness is optional, says retirement coach Debbie Grovum, MS. There are alternatives to accepting an ever-smaller life as we age without resorting to cosmetic surgery or becoming a marathon-winning “super senior.” Making the most of our accumulating years involves discovering — and embracing — the real benefits of aging. And that simply requires a better understanding of who we are and what we value.
Challenges to Overcome
- The absence of role models. “We’re not growing older in the same way our parents or grandparents grew older,” says Grovum. “We’re living and working longer, and not necessarily retiring at 65. We don’t have many models for how to navigate aging. So, in many ways, it’s a great unknown — and that produces anxiety.”
- Negative cultural messages. Many cultures reserve a special place for elders and revere them for their wisdom. Not so in the United States. Grovum notes that our youth-worshiping culture presents aging as decline, so we assume that it can’t possibly represent growth.
- Exaggerated loss. “There’s a lot of focus in our culture on what we no longer can do as we age,” she says. While certain abilities do change and diminish, to assume that aging is nothing but loss is mistaking the part for the whole.
- Fear of the mirror. We may assume that if we can’t halt the physical aging process at age 25, our value decreases accordingly. (For proof of beauty at any age, see “In Their Prime“.)
- The “super senior” mystique. The media often touts images of septuagenarians running marathons, ice climbing, or mountain biking on treacherous paths. While it’s great to have role models for vigorous aging, says Grovum, this super-senior ideal “can seem so far removed from most people’s experiences that it really has no meaning.”
- Regret over missed opportunities. If we’re not already an arena rock star or a Major League Baseball player, the likelihood that we’re going to become one diminishes with time, she says. This can prompt remorse — Why didn’t I get my act together sooner? — and the feeling that aging means giving up on our dreams.
- Fear of death. Aging makes the illusion of immortality harder to sustain. “When we’re younger, we know we’re not going to live forever, but we don’t quite believe it,” says Grovum. “As we get older, not only does the end get closer, but we are likely to have experiences related to our health that remind us that the end could come sooner than we think.”
Strategies for Success
- Embrace the “new aging.” Many of us live up to a quarter-century beyond the traditional retirement age, says Grovum. Plenty of opportunities for growth and exploration remain — as long as we don’t give in to the idea that we’re “too old.”
- Focus on the positive. Most of us gain wisdom over the years and we have less to prove than our younger selves. Enjoying these fruits of aging, even if we’re not thrilled about all its side effects, can reduce anxiety about the process.
- Think experimentally. “Getting older means ending one stage of life and moving into another — and that offers an opportunity to try new things,” Grovum says. “As we age, we tend to care less about what others think of us, so we might try some things we were too embarrassed to try when we were younger.”
- Seek role models. “Find people who are aging the way you want to — and emulate them,” Grovum says. “You can get ideas about what’s possible that you might never have otherwise.”
- Chase the dream as best you can. The top of the game isn’t the only place to play. “At my age, I’m probably not going to become a prima ballerina,” she says. “But that doesn’t have to stop me from taking a dance class.”
- Decide what’s important to you. The key to confident aging is a secure knowledge of your values, Grovum says, and a moderate amount of suffering can actually help clarify them. “Regrets over what we didn’t accomplish, or aren’t likely to, can be wonderful clues,” she explains. As we reflect on past experiences to assess what felt worthwhile, it becomes easier to pursue our deep dreams.
- Stay in the present. Enjoying the present moment can be a powerful antidote to age-related anxieties about the future as well as regrets about the past, she notes. It can also help us stay in touch with what we care about. Grovum recommends a regular practice of meditation to help keep us in the here and now. (For tips on how to meditate, see “How to Begin a Daily Meditation“.)
- Be aware that time is a gift. It’s true — none of us is going to be around forever. That in itself can be a powerful motivator to make the most of our days. “When you think you have all the time in the world, it can be easy to waste it,” Grovum points out. “When you give up that idea, time becomes precious.”