Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Seven Ways To Grow Old Gracefully

October 2, 2000

How do you envision handling old age when health and physical limitations hinder mobility and your ability to take care of yourself? It is not an idle question because by staying alive long enough, we will reach that point when outside assistance is needed.

Is there a way to react to the infringing disabilities of old age without taking on characteristics that alienate our caregivers whether they are family members or those paid to assist in our care? How do we avoid becoming self-centered and acting like we are the only people that matter?

A lifetime of positive relationships and accomplishment doesn’t have to end in anger or bitterness, obsessive preoccupation with bodily comfort, or self-pity and unhappiness. If it does, our friendship circle and visitors will shrink to those who soldier on with us mainly out of obligation.

Yet many people in the same situation attract visitors and are dearly loved and are affectionately cared for. What is the difference?

We reap what we sow. The qualities we have in old age will have continuity with the way we have lived life. We will carry the same habits, both positive and negative, into old age that we have cultivated during our lifetimes.

If we are critical, short tempered and bossy, we will act that way still. If we are generous, active, and goal-oriented, we will have those same inclinations when we are old. If fact, these qualities become more prominent with age.

I have seen exceptions however, as some people mellow out with age, reorder their priorities and discover through their limitations a new way of being with people. It is wonderful when that happens.

Ways of coping. Here are seven ideas to ensure a high quality of life despite the handicapping effects of age, a life-threatening illness or a degenerative disease.

1. Learn something new. Keep up on current events. Read newspapers, magazines and watch TV news. Be curious and open to new ideas and developments. Keep on adding to your storehouse of knowledge. Make yourself interesting to others and have conversations about things other than your immediate circumstances.

You are fortunate to live in the days of the word processor, the computer and the Internet. Through your fingertips you can bring the world to you and reach out to those whom you choose. Learning brings pleasure.

2. Minimize your negativity. Don’t be difficult, unnecessarily argumentative, a whiner and a complainer. Help people feel better after having been with you. Be pleasant and encouraging. By being habitually nasty, catty, and critical, you do not endear yourself to those who visit with you. Don’t join the ranks of grumpy old men and whiny old women.

3. Control your temper. The caregivers in your life want to be treated with respect and dignity. Being old isn’t a license to throw tantrums or lash out just because something isn’t going your way. Discuss your concerns and listen for the answers.

4. Be as self-reliant and independent as possible. Do as much as you can for yourself. Don’t willingly become a burden to others. Your caregivers aren’t your slaves and don’t want to be treated that way. Be considerate of their routine and schedule.

Be compliant with medications and rehabilitation programs. If you need help, accept it gracefully. Remember to say thank you and show appreciation for the special things that are done for you.

5. Have meaningful goals. Goals give meaning and purpose to life. Having limitations doesn’t mean giving up goals. It means you have to figure out a way to work around your limitations. Use whatever technology that is available to compensate for any limitations you might have.

Goals put you in a problem-solving mode and keep your mind busy. Goals and activities distract people from pain and worries. If you have to, simplify your goals to match your strength, energy and capability. You may have to pick and choose what you can do and give up aspects of your life to concentrate on the goals you have.

6. Share your love. Care about the people in your life. Take the focus off yourself and put it on them. Listen to them. Offer your attention, advice, wisdom and interest. Be compassionate about their circumstances. If you have the means, be generous in meeting current needs instead of waiting for your estate plan to execute your desires. Give your possessions away.

Offer to others what you have to give. Share your wisdom. Share stories from your life. Use your sense of humor. Make people laugh. Make your grandchildren and great-grandchildren objects of your love. No matter how old, no matter how feeble you get, you can still share your love.

7. Find meaning in your afflictions. The end of life completes your journey of faith. Find peace that this life is a part of a divine plan for you. Look forward with faith. Your equanimity with death will inspire faith in those whom you love.

The finiteness of time gives urgency to life. Your waning moments are precious. Time is precious. You are precious. "When you learn how to die, you learn how to live" - Morrie Schwartz, "Tuesdays With Morrie"