Aging is a natural process in life that elicits a mixture of emotions for many of us. On the one hand, we may be aware that we are fortunate to be reaching this stage of life where we are contemplating our longevity so far, but on the other hand, aging can be difficult as we are presented with unpredictable events, life transitions and many changes.
The loss of our parents – Losing our parents may be one of the first times when we more deeply reflect on our own age, the circle of life and our own mortality. While this may have happened earlier for some who had the misfortune of losing their parents before middle age, if we have seen our parents into middle age then parental loss can be a time of heightened emotions concerning our own mortality. When we were younger, we may have gone through a similar process when our grandparents died and other loved ones died, but the death of our parents in middle age and beyond brings us closer to our own fate as we see that the generation before us is dying and our generation is next to follow. This can be a time of much pain and reflection. For those who have reached elderhood, you may have experienced the deaths of significant loved ones already and have found yourself in a process of grief and constant readjustment in life without your significant others.
Changes in our bodies – Undeniable changes happen in our bodies that signify aging such as loss of skin elasticity, changes in bladder and bowel control, wrinkles, body weakness, changes in health and fitness, and aches and pains to name only a few signs. While for many of us, these changes can be distressing, it is fairly safe to say that we do grow into aging. Some of these changes occur gradually if they are occurring as a natural process of aging. But there does come a time when we find ourselves managing a few or many of the changes all at once.
A Note about Menopause in Women
It should be noted that for women, a genuine and undeniable marker of age is menopause. Unlike many men in their 40s and 50s who will experience more gradual changes within their bodies over time, women experiencing pre-menopausal and menopausal symptoms often deal with drastic changes within their bodies that highlight, unmistakably, that a certain stage of life is over and a new stage is beginning. The end of our child bearing years signifies a major truth about exactly where we are in midlife. Menopause is different for all women and can be accompanied by a range of emotions. Some women may not give much thought to what it means to no longer be of child-bearing age and may not be bothered emotionally when entering this stage of life, whereas other women may find that no longer being able to reproduce brings up a whole host of thoughts and feelings pertaining to aging, sexuality and life purpose.
Illness of ourselves and those around us – One of the greatest difficulties of aging is when we find ourselves coping with failing health and we increasingly witness the illnesses of others. As we age, being faced with illness is a true process in letting go of previous ways of being and adapting to newer ways of functioning in the world. It takes a considerable amount of emotional and physical effort to work through the difficulties of managing an illness or witnessing loved ones trying to manage their illnesses. When we become caregivers to others, especially to our parents, this is not only extremely physically stressful, but is often emotionally taxing.
Loss of friends and siblings – We may have had previous experiences of loss in our life-time but in middle-age and elderhood, the death of our friends, siblings and other people from our own generation can be extremely unsettling. Not only is it extremely painful to lose loved ones that we may have known as far back as childhood but these losses also bring the reality of our own mortality closer to home.
Certain events in the lifecycle mark milestones that we celebrate but that can also fill us with a sense of sorrow at the realization of the passage of time. You may find yourself feeling as though you are supposed to be happy about certain things, and a part of you genuinely is, but at the same time, another part of you feels confused and startled by conflicting emotions such as fear, apprehension or even dread.
Retirement: Retirement, as exciting as it can be, is a life transition that requires adjustment and produces stress. Retirement brings on a complete shift in daily schedule, responsibilities and goals. This is a transition where the range of feelings can be expansive and include elation, joy, uncertainty, sadness, fear and dread, to name just a few. Often, one will experience various conflicting emotions at the same time. Common challenges during this phase involve feelings of loss in various areas of one’s life such as: loss of identity, loss of productivity or a loss of value to society. Luckily, it is possible to incorporate activities into your lifestyle that can bring meaning and purpose to your life such as volunteering in your community, focusing your time on activities you really enjoy and spending time with loved ones.
Grandparenthood/not being a grandparent: While the birth of grandchildren is often a joyous occasion to celebrate in middle-age and elderhood, becoming a “grandparent” for the first time can cause us to reflect on aging, the passage of time and mortality in very deep ways. The passage of time seems faster as we look at our grown children and wonder how that happened. When our children have children of their own, the cycle of life is very apparent. If we remember our own grandparents then we may look back and remember what we thought of them when we were young. These reflections can be heartwarming and provide us with important role models to aspire to in this new stage of life. On the other hand, we can also feel unsettled when we realize that we have always held certain views of what it is to be a “grandma” or a “grandpa” and now we ourselves, have become those figures.
For people who have never raised children or will not have grandchildren in their lifetime, you may find yourself looking back and wondering how your life would have turned out if your circumstances or choices had been different. Although it is not uncommon to feel pangs of regret in elderhood, or at any time in life for that matter, transition points can trigger feelings of regret. Reframing your experiences in a positive light, recognizing your contributions in your work and/or personal life, and valuing your existing connections to loved ones are ways of working through regrets about the past so that you can arrive at a more realistic and positive outlook on your life and your accomplishments.
Fear of losing one’s attractiveness – As our bodies change and begin to show the signs of aging, many men and women fear losing their attractiveness. Concerns about appearance are wide-ranging and very common. Men often worry about becoming weak as their muscle tone changes and women often fear becoming invisible to society.
Fear of losing one’s sexuality – Aging brings on changes in the sexual organs and functioning of both men and women. Women may deal with vaginal changes associated with menopause that cause uncomfortable and painful intercourse whereas men may be dealing with changes in erectile functioning. Changes in desire can also become apparent as we age.
Fear of running out of money – We may be faced with thinking about our money in ways that never concerned us before. Financial worries can feel overwhelming and keep us up at night. Imagining not having enough money to do the things you want to do, or to take care of yourself or your loved ones, or to meet basic living needs in later life is very frightening.
Fear of losing independence – This fear looms large in the minds of many as we age. This fear produces common worries such as being diagnosed with dementia, becoming physically disabled, and becoming a burden to others.
Fear of Death – This is another fear that looms large in many minds and requires some attention here – this fear is seldom expressed openly with others. Everyone deals with the reality of death in their own ways. For some people this reality consumes them with anxiety and for others, death is a subject best avoided and pushed out of the mind as much as possible. As we age, the reality of death is less easily avoided. How we manage this fear as we age will have a great impact on our emotional well-being.
Common fears about death often are about what happens before, during and after death. Fears before death usually involve concerns about pain and suffering and the physical symptoms of death. Common questions are: “What will it feel like?” or “What if I can’t breathe and I choke?” or “I’m afraid of being in pain,” or “I want to die with dignity.” Fears after death can elicit questions such as “Is there a heaven?” or “Will I cease to exist as an entity?” or “What will happen to my consciousness?” Common fears about loved ones left behind can provoke questions such as, “Will my kids and loved ones be okay without me?” or “Who will take care of my pets?” or “How will I be remembered?” Many people have these questions but don’t express their fears or concerns about death because they fret about burdening others with their worries.
The transition into elderhood is a real practice in acceptance and adaptation. You may feel overwhelmed with your emotions as new challenges and fears arise with the ever-changing landscape that is typical of aging. My intention is to help you name and identify the fears and worries that consume you, help widen your perspective for a more expansive and realistic view of possibilities and help you to be at rest in the present moment so that you can arrive at a sense of peace with where you are in life right now.
Aging can also be an opportunity to gain an appreciation for the mind-body-spirit connection. There is a richness to all of us that is beyond the struggles and worries of the day. In accordance with your goals for counselling, we can inquire into the deeper parts of yourself that are of interest to you. Becoming curious about these aspects of yourself can lead to a rewarding inner journey that helps you to appreciate where you are in the life cycle and become more at ease with the mysteries of life and death. This may help you to move more gently into the transition of aging or if you have already reached elderhood, it may help you to feel more peaceful in your current experience.