Many people I have had the pleasure of meeting here at the beach are older and retired, having moved here to settle in and be happy. Some of them, however, tell me that getting older can be difficult, and they ask me if I have any tips to help them cope with aging.
Well, although I’m older than I look, I’m not quite at the retired stage yet. I won’t try to pose as an expert at something I’m not, but what I can do is share with you the positive experiences of people I have encountered over the years who seem to be aging successfully and happily.
One man in his mid-eighties tells me, ‘The key is to try to be out of the house by noon, every day. I don’t care whether it’s a get-together with a friend, or simply going to the store on a short errand. Just get out.’ This particular man lost his wife to cancer when he was in his seventies, but he has found a way to cope, despite the loss, by employing this simple yet profoundly wise strategy.
Another woman in her nineties (who actually happens to date the man I just described!) says the secret to successful aging is ‘all in the head.’ What she means is that you have to keep using your mind. She reads, visits museums and various scholarly events, and is always eager to engage in an active discussion about any subject you can imagine. She has read both of my books and some of my articles, and we have fascinating talks about them. Her points of view, gleaned from almost a century of living, have provided me with valuable insights into human nature. She stays interested in life, and life, in return, pays her back with better physical and mental health than she otherwise might enjoy at her advanced age.
My own mother has always claimed, ‘You’re as old as you feel.’ She has aged quite gracefully and attributes this, in her own words, to NOT thinking like an old person. I have noticed that people who age well do everything possible to keep their posture up and to walk with as much energy and confidence as they can. If you act and think young, you will, to some extent, end up feeling younger than you actually are. There’s no denying the power that a positive, upbeat mind-set can have on your physical well being. On the opposite side are those who walk, drive or perform other activities far slower or more cautiously than is actually necessary, out of fear that they will somehow break or fall apart at the slightest thing. I’m always amused at the number of energetic elderly who repeatedly accuse their cronies of this very thing!
I recognize that some conditions are hereditary and, therefore, outside of our control. Some people age better than others because they’re fortunate enough to have less susceptibility to certain ailments and diseases. Yet, how you manage things emotionally counts for more than most of us realize. Psychologists who specialize in work with cancer patients have told me that recovery, or at least longevity, is more likely in people with happy, realistic attitudes, than people who engage in denial, self-pity or who feel constantly depressed. We can’t simply wish away negative things, of course, but at the same time, good attitudes are easier on the body than negative attitudes—no matter what the age or medical situation.
A major factor in successful aging is how one handles the loss of their marital relationship. People who experience widowhood fare better if they work on accepting the loss, as well as, quite understandably, grieving it. It’s absolutely normal to grieve—indeed, in some measure, to grieve for the rest of your life. But at the same time, you have to develop, over time, an attitude of acceptance. Harsh as this may sound, it might make sense to work on this acceptance even before the day of loss arrives. None of us wants to dwell on the inevitable, of course, but it’s never a mistake to be realistic. If you can’t learn to accept, then you’ll never allow yourself the opportunity to experience the other things that life still has to offer you. This really applies to people of every age, since we are all subject to loss at any time.
‘There’s never an excuse for being bored, no matter how old you are.’ This is what several healthy and happy elderly people have conveyed to me, and it makes sense. In my first book, Effective Therapy, I described the process (and coined the phrase) of ‘psychological entrepreneurism,’ in which negative life developments, while still acknowledged as negative, are turned into opportunities and new experiences.
These are just a few of the things that people who age happily will tell you. Take it from them, not from me. Elderly people who thrive and are happy are among some of the most interesting and admirable psychological entrepreneurs, and we can learn so much from them.