We all dread the idea of aging, of losing our youthful looks and our health, and facing the fact that we have so little time left. It’s scary to think the runway is short, that the future is no longer stretching out infinitely the way it did in our twenties. For women this can be especially troubling, as so there is so much societal emphasis placed on what we look like on the outside rather than the inside. Typically men get more distinguished as they age while women step up their measures to hide their age. The thought of being identified as older, or worse, elderly is appalling. We worry about physical deterioration and the loss of our mental abilities is perceived as an even worse fate. Do we have to resign ourselves to this fate?
What Happens Now
Acceptance plays a huge part in how we come to terms with aging. It’s undeniably going to happen, like death and taxes, so the only thing we can control is our attitude. Accepting aging isn’t the same thing as resigning yourself to getting older. It means consciously evaluating how you feel about the next phase in your life and finding a way to embrace it. A good place to start is to take stock of what we are happy with presently in our lives. Notice the parts of your life that you appreciate, where you’ve seen progress in your own growth (don’t you feel wiser than you did when you were twenty-two?), and what makes you feel positive. What are you better at now than you used to be? Get in the habit of naming one thing that went well today, no matter how small the observation may seem.
Often our identities are tied to what we do for work, and this is how we’ve defined ourselves when people ask us who we are. If you are laid off or forced out of your workplace it can wreak havoc when someone asks you what you do. We may fumble for a new way to answer that question, having no official title and feeling somewhat embarrassed that we don’t have a story to tell that makes us look successful. Even if you are retired by choice you may still want to have a good sound bite about what you’re doing now. Our definition of success is frequently linked to our professional status and work-related achievements, rather than how we feel about ourselves as people.
We are parents, friends, sisters and we are valued by people who care about us. We’ve spent years developing these relationships and have learned much about ourselves in the process. We are also more than the sum of our relationships. We have our talents, our qualities and quirks that comprise our own brand. You are probably interested in many subjects that are not work-related. You may have activities, hobbies, volunteer work, book clubs, etc. that bring you satisfaction. This is part of the version of yourself that is timeless and makes you unique.
What are you good at? Undoubtedly you are better at these things now than you were years ago. It’s time to give yourself credit for what you’ve accomplished and stop focusing on all the things you didn’t master.
Embrace Your Future, Don’t Dread It
With the remaining time you have, what is important to you, what do you care about most? What do you want to be remembered for? This may seem like a morbid approach. However, it is an effective thought-starter if you want to make changes. If you opt to hide your head in the sand, now you will have to face how you feel about your life later, at a later point when it may not be feasible to make many changes. Seize the moment to do some soul-searching and if you’re satisfied with how things are now you’ll be able to appreciate it. If not, start to address whatever is not aligning with what you believe to be important to you. Defining your purpose now will prevent you from feeling a sense of emotional disintegration later.
While the process of assessing your life is an inward-facing activity, it is also amazingly helpful to focus outwardly on other people beyond yourself. If nothing else it provides distraction from your own quagmire of self-preoccupation. What is happening in the world at large that grabs your attention? Is there a cause that calls to you? What is going on with people closer to you? Ask yourself if there anything you can be doing to improve the quality of their lives. Giving back is a proven way of feeling better about the person you are because you know you’re doing good in the world.
If your goal is to feel better about the concept and reality of aging, do what is in your power to fix, improve or create your approach. This includes your tending to your physical health in whatever ways you have control. Are you getting enough regular exercise? Do you feel moderately good about your eating habits? If you don’t feel at peace with either of these areas, it will cause continual guilt. However, if you take action you’ll achieve a new level of satisfaction on several counts. Now is the time to make the types of changes you’ve been avoiding so they’re not hanging over your head.
It’s essential that you also tend to the health of your relationships. If you are experiencing any discomfort with relationships, particularly in your inner circle, consider repairing them. Don’t let this unease cause ongoing stress and ask yourself if you were to lose that person next week, would you wish you’d done anything differently? You know you can be the bigger person and make the first effort. Ensuring you have reliable social relationships with friends, family and community (even regular interaction with merchants, neighbors or warm encounters with strangers count) is key to feeling supported through both good and difficult times. Social isolation is known to adversely affect not just our emotional well-being but our physical health as well.
As The Frome Project has proven, leveraging existing social networks improves health outcomes. It was launched in 2013 in Frome, Somerset and it is rooted in the overwhelming evidence that health is heavily influenced by social factors (even more so than smoking, reducing excessive drinking, reducing obesity and any other preventative interventions). The study showed that when isolated people who have health problems are supported by community groups and volunteers, the number of emergency admissions to hospital fell spectacularly.
The Planning Part
Good things don’t usually just fall in your lap. It takes conscious planning and although typically we plan for activities, we can also plan for abstract goals. If your goal is to not loath aging, or better yet, actually find contentment, then it’s time to make some plans. Plan to engage in activities that feed your spirit and plan to push your own envelope. Your sense of accomplishment for trying new things, for forging new social connections and for taking care of your physical and emotional health will be satisfying.
Many of us are ostriches, putting our heads in the proverbial sand about our financial futures. If you honestly assess where you are now versus where you’d like to be, you can make any realistic adjustments and find some peace of mind. Even if you can’t retire in the style you’ve fantasized, identifying what is possible will encourage you to make wiser choices in your financial planning.
Having a purpose, believing you are useful, needed and appreciated will go a long way to make you feel better about aging. If your natural outlook is that the glass is half full rather than half empty, your positive attitude will support you. If you are stressed, anxious and angry with yourself for not dealing with things or people, then your negative attitude will impede progress. Feeling hopeful about what’s ahead, being socially connected and being engaged in your life will make all the difference in the world as you age.