As we are often reminded, the population of our country is aging. By 2030, there will be as many older people as young people in this country. I am 48, so by 2030, I will be one of the over-65 crowd. Like everyone else, I want to age well. In preparing slides for a talk to group of psychiatry residents, I came across the picture above. Showing it to the residents always gets a laugh and some funny comments like, “looks like his head was transplanted onto a younger body”.
But the picture is worth considering, because a pervasive message in our society today is that to age well we have to defy time and appear ridiculously younger than our chronological age. This message is even stronger for women. For many, that quest to appear young seems to backfire as the face becomes a distorted canvas for plastic surgeons to work on (Yes, I’m talking to you, Joan Rivers).
So how are we supposed to feel good as we age?
Research studies on aging well have long focused on the “successful agers”; those who get older with little accompanying disease or disability. While they are important to study and understand, disappointingly for most of us, that elite group is comprised of fewer than 5% of older adults.
As our name UM Program for Positive Aging implies, my group has chosen to focus on “positive aging”, the idea that you can age well despite disease and disability by modifying risk for disease wherever possible (you know the mantra, eat right and exercise, etc)–and just as importantly—by learning to deal with what you cannot modify. Studies that have interviewed older people who are happy and feel that they are aging well (often in the presence of disease and disability) have suggested some clues as to how to do it:
- Practice self-acceptance.
- Continue to try new things (old dogs can learn new tricks 😀 ).
- Engage with life and other people.
- Work on being resilient, rather than ruminating about traumatic events, move on.
- Pay attention to the positive, and spend less time on the negative. Along those lines, seek out situations that are enriching. And if there are situations or people that you can reliably predict will be negative (aka “soul-sucking”), avoid them as much as you can.
Is this easy? Not always. While some people effortlessly execute these positive aging strategies, it is harder for others. Many of us excessively ruminate about the past (“reviewing”) and worry about the future (“previewing”). The Program for Positive Aging together with our partners at the Geriatrics Center and in Psychology and Social Work are developing programs to teach older adults mindfulness. The goal is to help older adults to learn the emotional regulation and resilience that seems to help individuals to age well. With our training sessions, we have found significant reductions in depression, anxiety and ruminations. But perhaps, the following quotes from several of our older adult “graduates” are most representative of the promise of learning mindfulness:
“I am now more aware of activities that are nourishing versus depleting…I have been more careful not to engage in depleting relationships.”
“I am happier and need fewer naps…some painful memories resurfaced and I realized that I had been living in the past”
“My mind is more organized and I often see the solution to what I was wondering the day before…my mind has less clutter”