Once you reach a certain age â 80, maybe 85 â it’s hard to look to the future with optimism. You sum up your future in one word: decrease.
Your senses are blunted. Your energy is weakening. And you face an ever growing list of health issues.
Not to sound gloomy, but how are you supposed to find happiness in an increasingly dark existence?
Even if you are able to derive pleasure from your favorite hobbies or grandchildren – or simply savoring a good plate of pasta – your overriding anxiety about impending decline can stifle the fleeting joys of the life.
To combat feelings of hopelessness in the face of advanced aging, adopt a different mindset. Rather than dwelling on your shrinking world or your diminished abilities, focus on new discoveries and experiences.
Replace thoughts like “As I get older I will continue to break down” with “As I get older, I will continue to learn,” says Vonetta Dotson, associate professor of psychology and gerontology at Georgia State University. Feeding yourself a diet rich in positive messages can in itself brighten up your outlook.
She cautions older people to resist what psychologists call the “stereotypical threat” in which people tend to conform to widespread stereotypes of their group.
âYou can internalize negative stereotypes and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,â warned Dotson, who is also president of CerebroFit, an Atlanta-based brain health and wellness company. Assuming you’re doomed to dementia (“My memory is fading!”)
For longtime pessimists who like to worry, vain thoughts about your inevitable decline will only make matters worse. Instead, take action so that you’re too busy to bemoan the bane of aging.
âEvery time we do something and try new things it helps build that sense of positivity,â Dotson said. âAnd keep those social ties. When you socialize, your attention is diverted. When you are alone, you can ruminate “on your current and future physical and mental deterioration.
Best of all, learning something new allows your brain to form new pathways. It helps you to avoid dark thoughts about the aging process.
âBy engaging in rewarding and meaningful activities and staying mentally active, we can retrain our brains,â said Kevin Manning, neuropsychologist and associate professor of psychiatry at UConn Health. “These activities can improve our self-efficacy, reduce fears of decline, and refine our cognitive functioning.”
If you’re going to learn a new activity, commit to at least one follow-up. After taking a six-week language or music course, for example, keep practicing 10 minutes a day.
Continuous rehearsal and home practice extend the benefits of taking a class, Manning says. Another smart move: Sign up for the class with a friend to encourage each other to continue to hone your skills or develop what you’ve learned well beyond the formal end of the program.
Ideally, passion prompts you to take action. Why take a current affairs or foreign affairs course if you find the state of the world overwhelming and dread consuming the news?
To channel your activity in a more uplifting direction, set short-term goals. If you are learning a musical instrument, try to play a simple piece in a month.
Allison Gibson, associate professor at the College of Social Work at the University of Kentucky, knows an 87-year-old woman who loves knitting and babies. When she learned she could donate blankets at a local hospital nursery, the woman set a goal of knitting 100 by the end of 2021.
âShe’s on her way to her goal,â Gibson said. âIt motivates her not only to knit for herself, but for babies. When you adopt a goal that gives you something to do that makes sense, âit concentrates your efforts and displaces fears of aging.
On a practical level, you can look for community resources that you might find helpful later. Contact local social service agencies or nonprofit organizations to identify support programs and senior centers nearby and ask what services they offer.
For example, my local Lions Club International has a free lending library containing walkers, wheelchairs, and other equipment for the elderly. My city’s website lists a host of senior services, including a senior transportation program and a newly opened senior activity center.
âBecome aware of the different options and resources available to you so that you can start making a plan,â Gibson said. This way you know where to go if you temporarily need a cane or suddenly find yourself unable to drive and need a ride.
Let’s end with some reassuring news: older people tend to have high levels of resilience. Their ability to demonstrate competence during difficult times often surpasses the younger ones.
“As we age and gain life experience, we typically develop more ‘crisis skills’ and this contributes to an increased sense of resilience,” said Regina Koepp, clinical geropsychologist in Atlanta.
If you’re worried about what to expect, she suggests asking yourself two questions:
1. When was the last time I persevered through hardship?
2. Am I as confident now that I can take what I am facing (the fear of advanced aging and the decrease it brings) as I was the last time I went through hardships?
I hope you will answer the second question with a definite yes. Otherwise, you may want to see a professional therapist.
âThere is sometimes a stigma about older people receiving mental health care,â said Koepp, founder and director of the Center for Mental Health & Aging. “But older people can really and often do benefit from mental health counseling.”