Embracing the golden years: growing older with confidence, courage and optimism
The spectre of old age
Fear of ageing and death is incredibly common. For many people, it can make the onward march of time seem absolutely terrifying.
Some of us deal with this by simply ignoring or denying what is happening, or we spend all our energy fighting the changes. But the process continues regardless… and we become more stressed and anxious with each passing year.
However, a few older people seem to be able to meet the ageing process with cheerfulness, wry humour, and a real lightness of heart. So how do they do this?
Not just an ending, but a growing
Psychologists refer to something called the “end-of-history illusion”, which is the natural human tendency to think we have completed all our changing as a person, and we will now be absolutely stable and fixed as a character in the future.
In reality, no matter how old we are, we are always changing, and this means we never lose our capacity to learn and grow. In fact, there are particular opportunities for growth in old age that can have a transformational impact on our wellbeing.
- Blossoming inwards: Old age can be a time of great freedom and lightness of spirit. Things that used to feel like a burden – tradition, preconceptions, the expectations of family or society – can be shrugged off or simply left behind. We can consider what gives us meaning, and be less worried about what others think of us. We can focus on what really brings joy into our life, and rediscover the natural buoyancy that we see in children.
- Looking outwards: Our natural pace changes as we age. There is less pressure to pack a hectic schedule into each day, and everything seems to slow down. We can use this to cultivate an attitude of wonderment, a curiosity about life in all its smallest aspects. We can pay attention to those around us, welcoming connection in all its forms. When life is slower, even small interactions such as witnessing a child’s smile can bring enormous pleasure.
Meeting the ageing body
The ageing of the body, with all its sagging and wrinkling, can be very difficult to face in a youth-obsessed world (and can hit women particularly hard). Older people of both sexes often consider themselves no longer fit to be seen or desired. They bury their own desire and retreat from society.
The trouble is, dwelling on the loss of our youthfulness and good health, or spending too much time complaining about it to others, tends to lead to bitterness and shame.
Instead, it can be helpful to cultivate curiosity and compassion about what is happening to the body. We can consider how we will adapt to things like slower reflexes or loss of hearing. We might change our diet to respond to different digestive needs, or change the way we walk to maintain balance.
We can also rethink our sexuality. Even as the body withers, sensuality remains fully present. Loving touch with a partner becomes less about visual stimulation and more about the pleasure of the softness of skin, the warmth and simple presence of another body, the emotion experienced by the joining of hearts.
If we can stop looking in the mirror, and start directing our attention to experiences that make the heart leap, then even the oldest face can light up with radiance and joy. As French psychologist Marie de Hennezel says: “The warmth of the heart stops your body from rusting”.
Embracing our golden years
Approaching the end of life does not need to be feared. Instead of spending our time rebelling against the wrinkles, slowing-down and exhaustion, we can look inwards and discover stillness, unhurried sensuality, and personal freedom.
The richness of all this comes not despite, but in tandem with acknowledging the losses of old age. When we meet the ageing process head-on, much to our own surprise, we may find ourselves growing older with confidence, courage, and a genuine sense of optimism.
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About Sarah Hamilton
Sarah Hamilton is an experienced counsellor and psychotherapist, fully accredited with the BACP. Having previously worked in the charitable sector and the NHS, she now runs a private clinic in Hay-on-Wye, Herefordshire (www.haycounselling.co.uk). She works with both adults and teens, and has particular interests in trauma and mindfulness.