by David M. Ross, MSW, LCSW
As I approach my 65th birthday I find myself considering certain changes: relocating, leaving my current responsibilities, doing another piece of work, and perhaps retiring and simplifying my life. Having a need for growth and adventure, I often consider where I am and what is next. If I am not considering the next training or personal growth experience, I begin to feel something is amiss. Three years prior to my 65th birthday I complete an intensive two-year shamanic* study program that includes extensive travel often under survival conditions traveling throughout the Southwest, Mexico and Peru. My goal is to develop a deeper understanding and respect for nature, release negative patterns and fears and increasingly open my heart with compassion.
During this transitional period my son and I take a group to Peru to a remote area of the Amazon jungle to introduce others to the Shipibo* culture and ancient shamanic healings. For me the journey takes the form of gratitude and release. I spend time contemplating relationships with those no longer in my life, feeling sadness, appreciation and acceptance. In the midst of this work, my son approaches me about my decision to either return home to Vermont or to transfer ownership of my property held there. This decision has major implications for my future.
I am not prepared for the inner turmoil following my return to the States. Releasing the property is more difficult emotionally than I had imagined and, strangely enough, becomes a catalyst, forcing me to come to terms with my aging issues. I feel sad, lonely, disconnected and isolated as though I have lost my way. What do I do now? Do I stay in California? Where do I go if not here? Is the best of life now past? I am 65; what does this mean? Clearly the thought does not settle well. Sixty-five more than any other age has been recognized in this culture as the onset of old age. Social Security begins. The thought of retirement is depressing but most people I know at this age are retired or semi-retired. Am I denying what is just around the corner? I feel a sense of confusion and sadness. In my mind I can see old people sitting passively in front of television sets, of isolation and loneliness, illness, immobility, nursing homes, and the decline of memory. My thoughts also go to my mother’s decline into Alzheimer’s that progressively stole her mind, and life just two years ago. In the mirror I see a man, bald with white hair and white beard. Yet physically and mentally 65 does not feel like decline. In fact I feel more settled, more balanced and alert mentally and emotionally than ever before. I jog regularly, travel frequently, work a busy schedule, make personal and professional growth a priority and have no significant health issues.
I think of what I have been exposed to about aging and old age. Have I been deluding myself? Are these memories, thoughts, and emotions that I am experiencing in some way preparing me for an inevitable decline in my overall mental, emotional and physical functioning? Interestingly, my pessimism and discouragement becomes even more intensified as a result of taking a continuing education course on aging. This authority states:
In the coming years, thousands of older people will need mental health care. As a healthcare professional you cannot ignore the impact of this demographic change. As your patients and clients age, they will face new challenges. Many will have multiple medical problems that impact their emotional health and obfuscate accurate diagnoses. The majority will be taking medications that can cause psychological and behavioral problems. Others will have changes in memory and cognition, which require that interventions take on a different approach… Geriatric mental healthcare is based on the premise that older adults have unique psychological needs in the life stresses they face, in the social support available to them, in their physical care, in their cognitive abilities. (Cone, 2004).
Is this what I have to look forward to?
I have released the property and feel clear and positive that this is the right decision. But now, a seemingly small matter, I consider letting go of special lumber I have been storing in Vermont to use for woodcarvings. I find myself bothered over the potential loss. I can’t seem to separate the loss of the wood and its great value in my earlier years as a carver, from the loss of my younger self. This process is not over; I see that each loss is important to acknowledge, understand, feel, and grieve.
At 57, I faced the crisis of cancer. Fortunately the treatment was successful with no further intervention needed. Now at 65 I am being called to face a new threat, aging. I am struck by the contradictions between our cultural biases about age and aging, my personal feelings and experience, and the literature and research. However, as I delve further into the literature I am relieved to find a great deal to be optimistic about. By facing my fear and doing the research to separate fact from myth I am able to resolve my confusion and sense of hopelessness.
The writings of Betty Friedan, feminist and scholar, were enlightening. In the early 90’s Friedan took on the monumental project of searching out and separating objective truth from cultural bias in aging. At that time, her friends had given her a 60th birthday party. She was depressed for weeks after. She notes that her dread of age and personal denial intensified as she initiated her search into the gerontological research.
I had similar feelings. After a seminar a group of us go to dinner. When my birthday goes without mention, I feel both relief and discomfort. It is clear that I have bought the stereotype. Agism. I’m seeing aging as a negative, a time of decline and dread. Until now, my issue with aging has been held in abeyance. It was the act of making decisions about my next steps that forced me to address my own stereotypes and internalized agism.
Surprisingly, Friedan found evidence even in the early 90’s for optimism about aging. She found that only 5 % of those over 65 were suffering from the disease of Alzheimer’s and only 5 % of those over 65 were in nursing homes with the projection that no more than 10% would ever be (Friedan, 1993). That projection is holding its reliability. According to The World Fact Book, our current population is 295.7 million people, and of these, 36.7 million or approximately one in eight are over 65 (2005). Further, the National Center for Health Statistics reports that of those over 65, about 5% live in nursing homes (1999).
Since Friedan’s research, we have made gains in separating myth of aging from fact. However, as I personally experienced, these negative attitudes are slow to change: For example, Kausler and Kausler, in Graying of America state:
Agism by the Young — and by the Elders
When college students are asked to rate a “typical” 25-year-old and a “typical” 70-year-old on a number of personality characteristics, they apply more negative characteristics to the 70-year-old individual than to the 25-year-old individual and more positive characteristics to the 25-year-old than to the 70-year-old. Most depressing is the evidence that elderly adults are nearly as likely as young adults to apply the negative stereotypes in evaluating their peers (2001).
Further, they state that young adults with less than a high school education are prone to believe that nearly all older people tend to be senile, lack sexual interest, live in poverty and feel miserable about their lives. Even younger medical students express negative feelings about treating the elderly. Fortunately education has begun to reverse this trend and more medical schools are teaching courses on clarifying the myths and working with this population (Kausler and Kausler, 2001).
One biological myth about aging is that most individuals 65 and over are so physically impaired that they can not function on their own whereas about 90% of the population in this age range do in fact function well on their own. Memory, another factor related to age does show a decline with age. However, decline does not infer impairment and regardless of age people can learn and retain new information. Disease such as Alzheimer’s is infrequent even among those in their 80’s. In terms of ability to cope with stress, generally considered greater among the younger population, investigators have not found a significant difference among those of different ages (Schulz and Salthouse 1998). Further, a 1998 life satisfaction survey of adults ranging in age from 25 to 74 found the older the respondent, the more frequently they reported feeling positive emotions like cheerfulness, good spirits, and happiness (Vierck, 2002). Also encouraging is a survey of 3,000 plus Americans of all ages showing that chronological age is less a marker of old age than other factors such as physical and mental health. And surprisingly, 72% of those surveyed believe a 75-year-old man or woman can be considered “sexy” (Butler, 2002).
While physical decline is an aspect of aging, many individuals are vigorous and active at 90 and clearly a person’s habits and behaviors can make a significant difference.
Health practices essential to maintain and improve health are; mental and physical activity, good nutrition, a healthy weight, appropriate use of drugs and alcohol, a safe living environment and timely medical care and health screening. While the elderly take better care of themselves than younger people do, they are less likely to exercise; an activity that can add quality and years of life (Vierck 2002).
Regular physical exercise comes closer to being a “fountain of youth” than anything modern medicine can offer. Exercise can lower one’s risk of heart disease, some cancers, stroke, and diabetes. It can also moderate the effects of osteoporosis, arthritis, and depression, and can improve sleep quality and memory (Vierck, 2002).
Needless to say, this information is heartening and in stark contrast to agism and common cultural perceptions of inevitable decline.
Jung: A Beacon of Light
Carl Jung’s contribution to our understanding of the importance of this stage of life is significantly under-rated and under-utilized by professionals. Jung maintained that close attention should be paid to the second half of life. He believed that only after 40 could the process of individuation begin and extend through the second half of the life cycle. Jung underscored that the older person must give serious attention to their inner life and that trouble comes in the refusal to see that the second half of life is not governed by the same ego-driven principles as the first half. In fact he believed, “the greatest potential for growth and self–realization exists in the second half of life.” The problems of later life, he stressed, are due to the inability to be in touch with unconscious feelings which, if experienced and examined, would bring one closer to one’s true self. The first half of life has more to do with “doing” such as career, family and advancement; the second half of life is more about meaning and integration, “being.” Thus, a major goal of the second half is the integration of the two aspects of the self; the masculine “doing,” and the feminine “being.” Age as understood by Jung becomes the vehicle for a life-altering and life-enhancing paradigm shift. Jung’s contribution in challenging the myth of age as a time of deterioration and dread is immense (Friedan 1993).
Coming to terms with growing old, acceptance of the inevitability of death and living richly from within are the goals of this stage as are; living unselfishly, sharing wisdom, and a desire to make our world healthier and safer for those who follow. These gifts come from letting go and moving on with a sense of acceptance and rightness rather than regret and fear. Indeed, those 60, 70, 80 and 90 year olds who are living conscious full lives are precious models. Just as with the current generation of older individuals, each subsequent generation will undoubtedly need help to address their internalized agism and come to terms with a cultural mindset in which youth, beauty and materialism are of greater value than the gifts of elder-hood.
I have finally come to terms with the temptation to turn, retreat, and deny the direction my life is taking. My view of age and aging is altered. This is my time of growth and expansion. Emotional, mental, and physical decline are not the “givens” nor are they the norm. Feared myths of aging are just fears, nothing more. Jung has given us a model for psychological growth that emphasizes the importance of attending to our feelings, paying attention to what is beneath the surface and to the importance of integrating the masculine and feminine aspects of our nature. With this deeper knowledge and insight, I look forward to even greater acceptance of age, to remain physically active living each day as fully and richly and with as much zest and humor as I can muster.
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* The word “shamanism” comes originally from Siberia and references the act of “knowing” or “to know.” Shamanism is perhaps the oldest practice of healing known to man and has existed in all parts of the world for thousands of years. It is based on an understanding and respect for nature recognizing that everything is alive and conscious and there is no separation between matter and spirit or between the physical world and the world of energy. Shamanism employs ancient practices and understandings to heal imbalances within the individual, between individuals, and between the individual and environment.
*Shipibo: A culture of about 35,000 people living in the region of Pucallpa, Peru. Despite a half century of Christian conversion the people have maintained their tribal identity and shamanic traditions.
*Morrie Schwartz: Recommended reading: Albom, M. (1997). Tuesday’s With Morrie, Doubleday.
Butler, Robert N, (2000). The Realities of Aging, Geriatrics, 55,5.
CDC,(1999). National Center for Health Statistics, National Nursing Home Survey, www.cdc.gov/nchs/nnhs.htm.
Cone, W. (2004). Aging, Mental Health and Long Term Care, Continuing EdCourses.Net.
Friedan, B. (1993). The Fountain of Age, Simon & Schuster.
Kausler and Kausler, (2001). Graying of America, 2nd Ed., University of Illinois Press.
Schultz and Salthouse, (1998). Adult Development and Aging, 3rd Ed., Prentice Hall.
The World Fact Book, (2005). www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/.
Vierck, Elizabeth, (2002). Growing Old In America, Gale Group Inc.