This is something that qualitative study has taught many people. Here’s a wonderful quote from a Facebook post by Psychologist Irving D. Yalom, (Yes, he has a Facebook page, you’re never too old to have one)
“On being seventy-nine. We dread the limitations and losses of old age. But an encouraging word about the positive aspects of aging: this may sound odd but the last decade has been the best one of my life. Gone are many of the anxieties of my earlier days and I’ve been able to bask in the sheer pleasure of being alive in the company of those I love.”
This lovely sentiment is now backed up by recent research.
A report in the journal Psychology and Aging, “Emotional Experience Improves With Age: Evidence Based on Over 10 Years of Experience Sampling”, has shown that emotional experience improves as we age. Participants ranging from 18 to 94 years of age were provided with pagers. Throughout their day to day lives, they were paged by researchers and asked to complete an emotional response form which tracked their emotional experiences day to day, the good, bad and everything else in between. The four main outcomes of this study showed that 1) Overall well being increased as we age 2) As we age we are able to self-regulate or maintain a more balanced outlook on life 3) Emotional ups and downs are not quite so severe 4) That more positive experiences and outlook in life increases life span.
This may or may not be news for some folks, but it would seem that we as a nation are a bit afraid of getting grey behind the ears. There are of course the myriad of methods that help us to avoid looking and “feeling” older; cosmetic surgery, new prescription medications, and an endless supply of supplements that aid in combating the aging process. It’s no wonder that there are so many of us who are in the middle years dreading our futures. With all of the marketing of fear of dying that hits us everyday, it may not be surprising that despite all of the research and personal narratives that show aging can be wonderful, we are still determined to ignore and avoid the aging process.
In Awakening to Aging: Glimpsing the Gift of Aging, editors Dr. Myrtle Heery, clinical psychologist and Dr. Gregg Richardson, Clinical Neuropsychologist lay out a blend of stories that speak about aging. Dr. Heery speaks about aging as a time to awaken, to awaken to a larger view of self and life through the process the process of aging and to awaken to one’s true nature and “develop a transparent presence of being.” Life span development theories support this idea. Development is process, as we age we learn from our experiences and integrate them into our lives so that we know more about what may come in the future and hopefully make better choices. We begin to see ourselves as who we are through our mistakes and triumphs – transparency. This is an aspect of wisdom. As we get older we become wiser. Aging offers us the opportunity to step into self-actualization, self-knowledge, find meaning in our lives and transcending through moving through and integrating life’s harshest experiences. Perhaps the fear is more related to knowing that the “end” is near.
As Yalom stated in his musing, as we get older there is an inherent understanding that our time here is limited. For some this can create anxiety, but as this research demonstrates for others there is a greater sense of happiness and appreciation for life no matter the ups and downs. Many people view aging as a time of loss and sadness. Aging can and should be an honored and humane experience. Rochelle Suri’s article “Working with the Elderly: An Existential-Humanistic Approach” published in the Journal of Humanistic Studies, noted the importance of presence, spirituality and finding meaning in aging. This existential-humanistic view of aging has opened the door to new ways of helping our elders age with dignity. One such place is AgeSong, an assisted living center in the Bay Area that provides therapy and services to our elders under the vision of providing holistic care while honoring that aging has meaning.
The Baby Boomers are the largest generation that will be stepping through the experience of aging. Hopefully, with all of the new research, community support and recent developments in the area of supportive aging services we will be able to shift what we believe about aging and how we experience this life change. This shift will be integral to the well being of not only the baby boomers but for generations to come.
To end with a quote from the late Elizabeth Bugental
“Growing old is not an option. But how we age is a choice.” AgeSong: Meditations for our Later Years
– Makenna Berry