What comes to mind when you hear the term “old age?” Along with positives like grandchildren, retirement and travel, aging into our 70s, 80s and 90s can also bring losses like declining health and mobility, deaths of loved ones and shrinking levels of independence.
Yet older adults possess creativity, resilience and wisdom that can help them maneuver the challenges of aging and even reinvent themselves at advanced ages, says geriatric psychiatrist Dr. Marc Agronin, director of mental health services at Miami Jewish Health Systems and author of “The End of Old Age: Living a Longer, More Purposeful Life.”
It’s time we stop looking at old age as a dreaded condition to which we must reluctantly submit or a fearsome foe we continually try to outrun or deny, says Agronin. Instead, we can use a lifetime of accumulated skills and wisdom to make our own aging better.
We need to define aging beyond the societal view of decline, says Agronin. Even with diminished abilities or health, an older person still brings a lifetime of skills to the table that can make aging better.
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“The End of Old Age” isn’t a sugar-coated depiction of growing old. In fact, several of Agronin’s patients described in the book suffered debilitating illnesses. Yet many improved once they found a sense of purpose, discarded ingrained beliefs that their days of growth and learning were over or opened their minds to trying new treatments or approaches to life.
“Any individual person has different elements of wisdom and brings a basket full of strengths that offer potential help with relationships, adversity, financial stress, medical problems or some other major stress in their life,” Agronin told A Place for Mom.
For example, an aging person can take stock of their own resilience, forged from what Agronin calls “age points.” An age point is when our initial ability to understand and cope with a situation is disrupted because our life experience hasn’t yet taught us how to face or process it.
“An age point might begin with a crisis, trauma or even terror and causes us to feel temporarily stunned or paralyzed and uncertain of what to do,” Agronin writes in “The End of Old Age.” “We may want and need to respond but we don’t know what will be effective to resolve the situation and regain our balance.”
Age points can be subtle, such as when a spouse’s serious illness prompts a person to think about the possibility of widowhood for the first time. Some hit harder, like trauma or the death of a child, parent or spouse. Retirement from a beloved career can be an age point. Every time we resolve an age point, the experience turns us into more developed and capable aging adults.
“As they age, people can bring those strengths into problem-solving,” Agronin says.
As we age, many of us get stuck in what Agronin calls the “stagnant quo,” a safe, quiet life that lacks creative endeavors or relationships that once brought meaning and purpose. It doesn’t have to be that way, though. That’s where creative aging and a sense of purpose come in.
“Creative aging refers to making something new, not just making something artistic. Creative aging embraces aging as a force of good,” says Agronin.
Even in what seems a hopeless situation, those who have witnessed an aging person’s resilience can step in to offer help based on knowledge of those strengths.
One of Agronin’s patients, Muriel, 80, suffered from constant, excruciating pain, depression, immobility and a host of other illnesses. Agronin considered calling in hospice care. Then he recalled Muriel’s resilience when she was a caregiver to her husband, whose belligerent behaviors and failing memory first brought her to his office. Throughout her life, Muriel had also survived a double mastectomy and multiple surgeries.
Agronin and Muriel’s daughter rallied to muster hope for Muriel, since, at that point, she couldn’t do it for herself. Agronin tried a new treatment plan, cutting back on pain meds to reduce delirium and sending Muriel to a new pain doctor. He prescribed medications that allowed her to sleep while keeping her moods in check.
Muriel improved and moved in with her daughter’s family, where she found a new purpose interacting with her a multi-generational household. When the daughter added a rescue dog to the mix, the Goldendoodle became Muriel’s constant companion.
“She walks him every day (or he walks her) and this supposedly decrepit and dying woman will sometimes be out walking for over an hour with the dog,” according to Agronin’s account. “Muriel the caregiver has risen again.”
In “The End of Old Age,” Agronin offers an action plan to examine our own resilience and wisdom to guide an aging person out of the “stagnant quo” or age better, even in a challenging situation. The key lies in redefining how you look at aging.
“If we have a more positive attitude and greater sense of purpose, an older mindset tends to be more positive,” says Agronin. “It doesn’t dismiss the challenges but says that aging gives us some gifts here. I wanted to give people a practical way of putting some of these things into action to make positive changes.
“An aging person can find their new way of looking at aging liberating, allowing them to make their own choices and be their own person. Sometimes, it takes a lifetime to get there.”
How have you redefined old age? Share your stories with us in the comments below.