Navigating the Territory of Growing Older
“Old age ain’t for sissies.”
- Bette Davis
We may say this with a poignant chuckle or a wincing grimace, but most of us would agree with Bette. The “Another Country“ - as psychologist Mary Pipher calls it – can emerge before us as what ancient map-makers once called Terra Incognita or land unknown.
We visit it at first as non-natives, through the stories and journeys of our friends and family members, and at some point, if we are fortunate to live long enough, we begin our travel there ourselves. The territory of growing older is unfamiliar, complex, sometimes frustrating and sometimes exhilarating. We have in’s and out’s and up’s and down’s on our way. The terrain is constantly shifting!
While it is the “Land Unknown”, we don’t have to face our journey there like the frightened ancient cartographers who warned explorers away from unknown lands with the label, Here Be Dragons!
Despite a certain ageism which exists in our culture along with some denial about aging, more and more midlife and older travelers are recognizing that older years are a realm full of daunting challenges, yes, but also of rich opportunities for healing and creativity.
Getting older may not be for sissies, but it is a fascinating trek for pioneers and adventurers.
How can we find our way?
1. One way to prepare for the journey is to talk with some “natives” – our elders – and learn from them! Talk to cherished older parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings and friends. Ask them what they enjoy about being their ages and what concerns them. Ask them what surprises them about being their ages. Those conversations will be a win-win – a win for the elders who have so much to share, and a win for those not as old who will learn from their role models.
Noted psychologists Erik and Joan Erikson created groundbreaking theories about the stages of human development when they were in their younger and midlife years. Here is what Joan had to say about their work regarding older people when she herself became 90 years old:
I feel as if we owe an apology to all of them saying, “That wasn’t it. We hadn’t been there and so we didn’t know the difference.” And we shouldn’t have made it up. We should have gone and talked to a lot of wise old people. Maybe we would have learned. - Joan Erikson at age 90.
2. We can also read guidebooks – there are so many books on the second half of life that are superb and helpful. I already mentioned Mary Pipher’s book, Another Country. Here are some more:
The Longevity Revolution is another – written by one of the heroes of American gerontology, Dr Robert Butler. Dr Butler was one of our country’s first geriatricians, coined the term “ageism” and wrote the Pulitzer prize-winning exposé about ageism in our country entitled Why Survive? Being Old in America.
From Age-ing to Sage-ing by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi is also wonderful, as are Losses in Later Life by Scott Sullender, and Aging as a Spiritual Practice by Lewis Richmond. Many more, too many to mention, are available online and at your libraries.
In our isolated society that seems to have such a negative stereotype about older people, it can be very common to feel overwhelmed at times as we approach the shores of this new land. But “white knuckling it” through overwhelm all alone is probably not the wisest plan. Many studies have shown that isolation, stress and loneliness are not good for overall physical and emotional health including this study recently published by the University of California, San Francisco titled “Loneliness linked to serious health risks for problems and death among elderly.“
3. Fortunately, we can also learn from educated and experienced guides who can meet with us in person - people who are knowledgeable about the major landmarks in territory of midlife and older age. Psychotherapists who are trained in gerontology – the study of aging – can be invaluable in helping you, or your loved ones, navigate through older life’s normal challenges, while recognizing and taking advantage of the inherent and often underlying rich opportunities. Seeing a competent and kind professional counselor who can provide you with an objective listener and guide – someone you can speak with confidentially, and someone you do not have to take care of.