Staying connected makes aging easier to accept

One of the surprises for me when I started as a counselor 40 years ago was hearing from some of my clients just how hard growing old can be.

I'm not just talking about the physical part - the aches and pains and encroaching disabilities we inevitably experience as we age. What really struck me was how emotionally difficult aging often is.

When we move in to our late 40s and beyond, our lives increasingly involve loss. We start losing our hair, our waist lines, our ability to have children, our muscle tone, our endurance, our eyesight, our agility, our memory and so on. If we've raised children, this is the time when we are likely to start "losing" our kids to adulthood. We increasingly lose friends and family to death. Even our dreams of success often have to be reined in - or even let loose - as we confront the limited time, opportunity and energy we have left (and the seemingly unlimited time, opportunity and energy the generations behind us seem to have).

Not surprisingly, all this loss involves a good many less-than-pleasant emotions. At one time or another we are likely to feel anxious, frustrated, fearful, angry, bitter, lonely, desperate and depressed. Such emotions can begin to affect our behaviors. They often sabotage our relationships as well, leaving us feeling even lonelier as people avoid us because of the emotions we are dumping on them. In fact, our feelings of loss can become so dominant in our lives that we cheat ourselves of many of the satisfactions and joys available to us as we age.

We now know some of these feelings are caused by - or intensified by - the biochemical changes that occur in our bodies as part of aging. But even without such changes, the sheer number and magnitude of the losses we experience as we age are enough to undercut the emotional well-being of many of us.

Of course, American culture in particular promotes an emotionally unhealthy response to aging. We are so oriented toward youth - and the beauty, strength, abilities and sensuality we associate with youth - that there is little place for a positive image of aging (unless, of course, a positive image of aging helps to sell some product - but that's another column). The respect and consideration given to the elderly in many other cultures is seldom found in American culture. Such bias makes it all the easier to get trapped in grieving our lost youth and mourning our inevitable aging.

We can do a number of things to keep from falling into this trap. For example, despite our physical limitations, we can exercise regularly and eat nutritionally. Both have proved to have a significantly positive effect on not only our physical health, but our emotional health as well. (Physical exercise is often as effective in treating mild depression as antidepressant medications.) We also can monitor the intensity of our negative feelings and consult a counselor or physician if our emotions seem to be too much to cope with.

Maintaining our contact with friends and family also has a significant positive impact on our emotions. And continually making new friends is a necessary part of emotionally healthy aging as well.

Perhaps most important, however, is learning to see past our own personal struggles and losses to find renewed meaning and fulfillment in our senior years. Ironically, this usually happens when we focus our efforts on making a contribution to the lives of the people around us.

As seniors we likely have accumulated some valuable knowledge, skills and wisdom over the years. Now we actually have time to use them to help others. There is no lack of opportunities for such service, no limit to the good we can try to do.

Losses are part of aging, and we need to be aware of the emotional costs of such losses. We can, though, find in our senior years a renewed meaning and satisfaction in life if we focus our time and energy on giving to the people around us. Such "other centeredness" is one of the most effective things we can do to maintain our emotional health as we age.

• Dr. Ken Potts is on the staff of Samaritan Counseling Center in Naperville and Downers Grove. He is the author of "Mix Don't Blend, A Guide to Dating, Engagement and Remarriage With Children."

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