Aging is inevitable, but to grow old gracefully is a choice. While we know that getting old is unavoidable, how we perceive this natural process depends greatly upon our social and cultural influences. In western culture, we tend to idolize youth, while aging is stigmatized as undesirable, even shameful. We worry about what we will look like, how our bodies will function, how our minds will deteriorate and how or where we will die. In many ways as we get older we become less visible; in popular culture, in employment, in our communities, even in our own families and this can have a greater impact on women than men. We risk becoming isolated and depressed, instead of experiencing old age as a celebration; of our achievements and of knowledge accumulated over a lifetime.
In many cultures aging is revered and if we look to the ways the elderly are perceived and cared for by these societies, we may discover ways to grow old gracefully ourselves. Instead of focusing on the physical and mental deterioration that growing old inevitably brings, these cultures look deeper into what it means to have lived a long life. It begins with how language is used and instead of placing a negative connotation on the word ‘old’ it instead becomes a term of endearment; even implying being closer to divinity. Getting older is also seen as a resource. Knowledge and experience are revered. Aging is associated with wisdom that needs to be passed down to younger generations. In this way, the elderly are respected and become desirable instead of a burden. They are cared for by their families or the greater community in a different way. They aren’t just hidden away in nursing homes and hospitals. Often children will care for their parents or grandparents and the community is accessible to the elderly. They are visible in public spaces and are catered to and included through accessible services. In some cultures, the hierarchy of age is observed closely and to be an elder in a family or community is something that is given authority and admiration. The cultures that value aging the most are those that reflect on their own mortality. Death is not a taboo; it is discussed openly and rather than being feared or ignored, it is seen as an opportunity to contemplate and reaffirm life.
Sometimes it is easier to think about the things we shouldn’t do in order to delay aging. The aim is to focus on self preservation by avoiding things rather than embracing the predictability of getting old. Perhaps this is the difference between sliding down the bumpy road of old age, by clinging desperately to our youth instead of accepting the inevitable and facing it head on with enthusiasm and willingness. The choice to grow old gracefully doesn’t have to feel like giving up or ‘letting ourselves go’. It should feel like surrendering in a positive way to the twilight of our lives by reflecting on the years gone, living fully and mindfully in the present and looking forward to the future, however short it may be.
Here are 10 ways to grow old gracefully that you may not have considered:
1. Get checked out
Don’t ignore the niggles. It’s easy to be in denial about symptoms and signs that something in our body, mind or emotions isn’t right, particularly for men. Usually it is fear that prevents us from seeing someone about an ache or dysfunction either because we don’t want bad news or we don’t want medical intervention to snowball. Better to be sure. It may be nothing, but it may be the start of something and the earlier we address ailments, the sooner we can treat them or eliminate them as a problem. It is important to find a balance between being hyper cautious to the point of hypochondria and being sensible. We should approach our physical and mental well being pro-actively instead of neglectfully.
2. Enjoy food and drink
We are always being told what not to eat or drink as we get older. There has been a lot of research done about how our bodies metabolize food as we age and how cutting calories throughout our lives can contribute to better health and a longer life. This is all sound advice and it is wise to reduce the intake of salt, sugar, fat and alcohol and increase the intake of fresh and raw food, water and wholegrain. However we don’t need to suck all the enjoyment from dining. Food is a source of pleasure and an opportunity to commune with others. Getting older is a chance to mindfully observe our diet while at the same time throwing caution to the wind occasionally and having that piece of chocolate cake or glass of wine. It’s important to be aware of portion size and destructive habits, but there is no benefit to obsessing.
3. Rest and meditate
By the time we reach the age of retirement we discover that we have spent a large portion of our lives working. This is a good thing; in most instances hard work gives us value and self worth. Our years as seniors are our opportunity to enjoy the fruits of our labor, but retirement can make some people feel a little lost. Going from years of routine to suddenly having a lot of time on our hands can affect both our physical and mental health. Many older people start to experience sleep disruption and insomnia and it is at this time in our lives that we need restful sleep the most. The more time we have on our hands, the more time we have to think about things and for many getting older can cause a lot of stress. Meditation has many benefits for the elderly including aiding memory and digestion.
4. Have fun and try new things
The retired years are a great opportunity to utilize all the new found time we have on our hands and one way to enjoy this time is to pick up some new leisure activities. It’s time to start ticking off that bucket list and to do the things we’ve not had the time to do. Why not try yoga, tai chi or pilates? Go for a swim regularly; in the ocean, it’s exhilarating. Perhaps walk more or cycle, or maybe do something a little more daring like scuba diving, sky diving or bungee jumping. Maybe pick up a new hobby like painting or rediscover an old one like a musical instrument we haven’t picked up in years. Go to art galleries, musicals, movies and shows. Participate in local councils and community groups or volunteer at a non profit organisation. Make something; knit, crochet, build things from wood, bake and garden. We can use our hands and our minds and rediscover our creative and artistic sides.
5. Notice appearance without being critical
Wrinkles and grey hair are coming whether we like it or not. Instead of resorting to plastic surgery or injectables, we can get to know the lines on our face; they tell our story. We can stop dying our hair and avoid the chemicals. While this advice will largely impact women more than men, it applies to both. There is a vulnerability about loving our appearance despite the pressure to resist the changes and in itself it is a revolutionary act not to succumb. We don’t realize that trying to appear younger by masking the visual reality of what our bodies and faces have become doesn’t actually work. We will still look our age. Likewise we should love our bodies. It has worked hard to get us this far and deserves our affection. Perhaps if we focused on the inside; on our emotions and thoughts rather than the façade, we can grow old gracefully. Feelings of inadequacy, insecurity, jealousy, regret, anger, sadness and bitterness are all normal human emotions, but can make our bodies and faces ugly and no amount of enhancements will change the person we become; people can see it in our eyes, hear it in our words and sense it in our disposition. An old person that is content, happy, kind, grateful, connected to others, interested in the world around them, willing to contribute and make a difference is beautiful despite the wrinkles and grey hair. Their true beauty shines through and they become young at heart. They hold on to that youthfulness forever regardless of what their body and face is doing.
6. Connect with people
Call on your family and friends. Make new friends. Get out and about and talk to people. Embrace technology and get online. It is an unfortunate outcome of our reluctance to embrace aging that we can easily become isolated. Feeling abandoned by society contributes to the tendency to opt for solitude, it’s just easier. However becoming insulated and lonely is not good for our health. When we share our experiences with our peers we feel less alone and experience greater levels of empathy. When we connect with the younger generation, we find opportunities to share our wisdom and offer advice. Personal experience is priceless to young people, whether they appreciate it in the moment or not. It is our obligation to offer guidance when we can to the youth of society; after all it takes a village to raise a child.
7. Remembering our youth
Looking at old photos and reminiscing about our life has many benefits. Retrospect is advantageous and cathartic. Re visiting the fashion of our generation and listening to the music that inspired us in our teens can take us back to our youth in an instant. Harvard Professor of Psychology Ellen Langer researched extensively the psychology of thinking ourselves younger. In 1979 she conducted a social experiment called Counter Clockwise to demonstrate how the psychology of aging can impact the physical reality. She took two groups of men in their 70s and separated them. One group lived in the ‘now’ of 1979 and the second group lived in a replicated environment of 1959; the era of the men’s youth. Their vital medical information was taken prior to the experiment and at its completion and it was found that the second group of men had an improved level of health overall, just by reconnecting with their youth.
We can write our story. These days there are a number of ways to document our memoirs that doesn’t require hand writing or typing like voice recognition or using a dictaphone.
8. Go to new places
We all want to travel and most of us have a list of places we aim to visit before we die. Sometimes aging makes traveling long distances difficult, whether due to expense or physical stamina, but we don’t have to go far to see the world with new eyes. We can start with our own town and go to the places we’ve never been. We can visit a park, museum, art gallery or shopping district in our own city that we’ve never experienced before. Eat at a restaurant we’ve not yet tried. It can be really exciting to experience our own city as though we are a tourist. Book into a nice hotel, take a guided tour and experience the city as though for the first time. If we’re up to it, we can work our way out from there to neighboring towns and states; even countries. Who knows? You may end up seeing the world.
9. Get a pet
“Pets not only offer companionship and unconditional love, in fact, emerging research suggests they may have the ability to boost health and general well-being, especially in the elderly.” Aged Care Guide, Australia
Extensive research has shown the many benefits for the elderly that owning a pet can bring. Dedicated pet owners will grow old gracefully, because the relationship we have with animals forces us to shed the negative beliefs about vanity and other unimportant issues that we may focus on in relationships with people. Although connecting with people is very important, a relationship with a pet has a much deeper and purer connection.
10. Speak up
As we age we need to keep asserting ourselves. As we get older we tend to be ignored or dismissed, but we shouldn’t let this dishearten us. Age and experience are valuable and the older we get, the more important it is for us to use the lessons we have learned in life to make a difference to the future generations. It is so important for seniors to be included in decision making, public life, politics, community standards and popular discourse. It is also valid for us to continue to participate in order to maintain our self determination and independence. We should have a say in how we want to live and how we want to see out our days. This will ensure we have a quality of life as we get older and an opportunity to grow old gracefully.