GETTING OLD: THE DARK SIDE, THE BRIGHT SIDE AND GEROTRANSCENDENCE
PART 1. THE DARK SIDE
My death is imminent. I have now passed the life expectancy for men in Canada of 80.2 years. (68.5 world wide for men, with the highest for Swiss men of 81.2 and lowest for men in Sierra Leona of 50.4) I am a statistic. I have a 1% chance of reaching 90. No matter how you shake it, the bottom line is my days are numbered… literally.
The simple story is, so what? I have lived past most. I can’t imagine a more privileged life; a rich academic life,
a rewarding and fulfilling teaching career, a happy marriage, (57 years of semi-bliss), two talented successful daughters who have married well, a granddaughter – a beacon of light. I have lived a life dominated by exciting world travel, enriched family life, bursts of creativity and innovation, and decades of lifelong learning and discovery. There is nothing left on my bucket list. If it is over today, I have no regrets. As the Innuit metaphor dictates, I could happily walk out on an ice flow with a smile on my face. There is no wailing for one more day, or one more year. Statistically it could all end in one day, or one year, or, 20 more years till 100!
Every day is living in each ‘now’ moment, one ‘now’ moment after another. As Maggie Smith (among others) said in the movie The Most Excellent Marigold Hotel, “I don’t buy green bananas anymore”. But having said all that I do not deny that being over 80 causes a lot of reflection on what happens to your mind and body as you age, and why.
REACTIONS TO AGING
Each person reacts differently, of course. Some fear death, some deny it and others can’t stop talking about
it. My nephew, Peter Diakiw, works as an eldercare worker in Seniors’ Homes. He witnesses many different reactions to imminent death. He wrote: “I’ve met a few men who decide to isolate themselves as they wait to die. I’ve also met quite a few who have to live their last years alone. I also have experienced the absolute terror that getting near to the end causes some. I’ve also cared for the opposite. These people are surrounded by people who love and respect them. They still light up a room just by their presence.”
Lillian Rubin, author, sociologist, and psychotherapist in her 80s, opens her book, 60 on Up: The Truth About Aging in America with the declarative statement most of us can relate to, “Getting old sucks. It always has, it always will.”
Writing about the heroism of old age, 87 year old Mary C. Morrison in her book Life Beyond 85 Years, through interviewing 150 seniors documents the dissipation of one’s body and mind. “Old age is not for the fainthearted”. One interviewee stated it simply, old age is “pure hell.”
On the other hand, as Maurice Chevalier quipped, “Old age ain’t so bad when you consider the alternative.”
AGING AND PHYSICAL DECLINE
The most obvious sign of aging is growing physical disability. One way to look at the quality of life in old age is calculating how many healthy years are left, not just life expectancy. It is called, health-adjusted life expectancy (HALE). Currently, health-adjusted life expectancy at birth in Canada is 69 years for men and 71 for women. The average Canadian can therefore expect to live roughly 10.5 years with some level of disability. Failing health is a fact of aging.
For decades my mantra has been, “age is about attitude not chronology”. But it is hard to maintain a youthful attitude if you can’t get out of bed, or are losing your eyesight or are becoming incontinent. There comes a time when, as John Mortimer said, “There is no pleasure worth forgoing just for an extra three years in the geriatric ward”. Or, as Woody Allen said, “You can live to be a hundred if you give up all the things that make you want
to live to be a hundred”. I’d rather follow Mark Twain’s adage, “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter”.
CAUSES AND EFFECTS OF PSYCHOLOGICAL ISSUES
But failing health can often be directly attributed to psychological and psycho-social issues, not just normal physical aging. While I accept my physical decline and the imminence of my demise, I have noted dramatic psychological changes getting to my ripe old age of 82. Psychological heath is critical to physical health in the elderly. “Depression, social isolation, loneliness are closely correlated to declining physical health. There is an increased risk of mortality with major depressive disorders”. (Bruce, 1994) “Depressive disorders may also be associated with a reduction in cognitive functions according to other studies”. (Speck et al, 1995)
EFFECTS OF ROLE CHANGES
After I retired as a school superintendent in 1993, I returned to school full time to complete a doctorate, the first item on my bucket list. Soon after, I began teaching courses on diversity at York University. I taught for another 20 years there till I was 78. While I changed roles from school administrator to student, then to university teacher, I felt no change in the challenge, rewards, or sense of satisfaction of my work. But when I stopped teaching and fully retired, the floor fell out beneath me. Suddenly I felt this overwhelming sense of the loss of ‘presence’, not just the invisibility that comes with old age, but of power, of status, of identity. Presence, as in: here, noticed, listened to, looked at, impacted by, changed by, interested in, appreciated, respected, better for… but NOT invisible! A chronic complaint of the elderly is their invisibility. We are routinely talked over, ignored, pushed aside, psychologically, even physically. After fully retiring at 78, I abruptly lost the identity of who I thought I was and how I thought I was perceived.
In one sense it is all tied up with change in roles. In social aging theory, role loss is one common component. Role theorists argue that having social power and prestige, and feeling in control of one’s life is associated with good health and positive attitudes through the many roles we perform. As we retire, we start losing our natural and fulfilling roles as parents, employees, and spouses.
Teaching is undoubtedly one of the most rewarding and fulfilling professions. It is not just the feeling of affecting young lives in positive ways, but teachers by nature are life long learners. As well, teaching is the gift that keeps on giving. Most of us are rewarded regularly through complimentary notes, emails, and accidental meetings in the neighbourhood.
Mean level of self-esteem as a function of developmental period, separately for the total sample, males, and females. Also plotted are year-by-year means, separately for males (open triangles) and females (open circles).
But when coupled with the inevitable shrinking list of social interactions with friends and former colleagues, retirement results in feelings of loss of control over one’s life. One’s health is directly related. Research shows “that perceived social isolation [assuming that socially isolated people have few roles] is associated with a variety of altered physiological functions, such as blood pressure regulation… and immune reactions.”
Certainly my identity as a father and spouse is one important role, but being a parent does not define one to the wider community. Nor are my parenting skills required any longer. My children are grown up, engaged in busy careers and do not need their parents any longer. A parental role is diminished, or sometimes, over. When I fully retired from teaching at 78, however, I felt an immediate loss of feelings of contribution and of being appreciated. I missed the satisfaction of solving problems, of interacting with students, generating innovative new ideas, constantly learning new things. I missed the collegial relationships of my career choice. I missed the feeling that I knew what I was doing was important. A career can be so deeply rewarding that nothing outweighs that loss. “You may walk all day and do sudokus all night once retired, but still miss the social and intellectual stimulation of the workplace,” one retiree said.
My self-esteem plummeted.
LOSS OF ‘ACHIEVEMENT IDENTITY’
For many teachers, our work, our career role defines who we are. My identity is defined by my role as an educator. It is especially difficult to surrender our career’s rewarding daily achievements. The loss of our ‘achievement identity’ is a health risk. It is accompanied by a loss of self-esteem. A UK Institute of Economic Affairs report concluded that 40% of retirees suffer clinical depression and 6 out 10 face declining health issues. Bruce Pitt in one study of aging reported about half of people 80 and over in the UK live alone, that dementia occurs in 20% of those over 80 and suicide rates peak in old age (for women in their late 60s, men around 80). So there are many psychological issues that are unique to the aged.
The loss of self-esteem, is one of the main causes of depression. It is a health risk.
CAUSES AND EFFECTS OF THE LOSS OF SELF-ESTEEM IN AGING
The graph below shows how self-esteem evolves over a life span; from the loss of self-esteem in the teen years to a peak in 60s, and then a dramatic fall late in life. “Self-esteem is related to better health, less criminal behaviour, lower levels of depression and, overall, greater success in life,” noted Ulrich Orth, PhD, the study’s lead author. I see myself statistically at that 80 year old axis. I am aware that my ‘achievement highs’ are in the past, not in the future. My feelings of usefulness fade. My self-esteem suffered.
After completing the Rosenberg test of self-esteem used in many of these studies, I still do have above average self-esteem. I am not depressed (yet) but I must say, I feel the emotions that would pull one into a depressive abyss.
Common advice to the elderly is to stay connected, maintain happy relationships, engage with the community by volunteering. Certainly these are critical and convincing ways to ward of the dangers of psychological decline, loss of self esteem, or even depression, but the achievement high of a cardiac surgeon performing a heart transplant is not equal to his volunteer role stacking cans at a food bank in retirement. The achievement high of a kindergarten teacher, teaching one child for
a school year does not equal volunteering at a local hospital for a year directing patients to their appointments.
Kali H. Trzesniewski, PhD, of the University of Western Ontario, wrote however that “… being in a happy relationship does not protect a person against the decline in self-esteem that typically occurs in old age.” Nor does being in a happy ‘volunteer’ situation, compensate for one’s career achievement highs.
As can be noted in the graph, by the little circles and triangles, there are outliers at every age with individuals scoring way higher in self esteem (and lower). What has transpired in the lives of those high esteem individuals in old age? Why do I still have a high level of self esteem? Tune in to Part 2, The Bright Side. (It will explore Jungian theory about aging, Maslow’s models of aging and other ideas emanating from Joseph Campbell’s writing about the Journey of the Hero.)
PART 2. THE BRIGHT SIDE
ME! LUCKY ME