Growing Old Well – By Doctor Rod


For the 45th year reunion of my graduation from Medical School the psychiatrists were asked to form a panel and address the subject of “Are we happy yet? Staying serene into the seventies”. It was an honour for the psychiatrists to be asked to address this important and quite personal question of how to live this phase of our lives well.

This was for me quite a challenge. At almost 68 working part time and being fit and active, I wasn’t feeling old and, apart from the issue of retirement, I had not really thought much about getting older. Of course, at one level, we are quite mindful of one’s chronological age and very aware of the negative stereotyping of old age.

Someone said “if we were to live forever, we would not take life seriously nor learn to love what is.” A Native American aphorism says “a wise person never wanted to be younger.” Both these statements challenge us to see there is a positive aspect to our ageing and our mortality.

As psychiatrists our work does have a strong focus on emotional well being and we are regularly challenged in clinical situations to integrate biological, psychological, social and spiritual dimensions of life.

Research on Ageing.

Whilst much is written, good research is limited. One notable study is the Harvard study which cost $20 million and followed 268 Harvard undergraduates for up to 75 years with the aim of finding what factors counted most for happiness, health and longevity. Genetic factors, social class and IQ (above a certain level) were found to NOT be very influential.

Your Mum Matters!

One finding was that having a loving mother mattered to a man’s success right into late middle age. But the men weren’t ruined by bad mothering, if they were loved by others in childhood. However, a loving mother was a boon. Yet by age 75, it was a man’s closeness to his father that counted. A man’s capacity to form warm, intimate relationships throughout his life was also a good predictor of happiness into old age.

Coping is Important.

The second factor correlating with successful ageing was the use of mature adaptive coping mechanisms – characteristic ways of handling emotional conflict and stress. Compared with “immature ” defence mechanisms like denial and passive aggression, mature adaptive coping leads to better problem solving and possible strengthening of relationships. Being able to handle issues gracefully removes barriers between people. Advancing age may impair some motor skills but maturity can make people sharper at emotional tasks.

Learning is Possible

One reviewer of this study noted another finding that was both fascinating and inspiring : people are capable of change. You can teach an old dog new tricks! Right into their 70’s and 80’s some of the men were changing for the better, finding the happiness late in life that had eluded them earlier. You can watch the director of this study discussing the methods and results here.

Two Phases of Life

Some scholars have suggested it is helpful to see life in two parts, with the first half being involved strongly with identity, security and intimacy. Hopefully these issues are going to be occupying less time and energy in later life thus allowing further maturation to take place.

One of the prominent tasks of the second half of life (roughly from 40 years on) encompasses the struggle between Generatively and Stagnation – can I make my life count? Generatively relates to establishing and guiding the oncoming generation or improving society rather than merely the task of having and raising children. In contrast, a person who is self centred and unable or unwilling to help society move forward develops a feeling of stagnation – a dissatisfaction with the relative lack of productivity.

Is It OK To Have Been Me?

This is followed by another task called struggle for Ego integrity as against despair as we reflect on the question of “Is it okay to have been me?” If in the retirement phase as we contemplate our accomplishments we see ourselves as leading a useful life, we develop feelings of contentment and integrity. If we see our life as unproductive, or feel we did not achieve our life goals, we become dissatisfied with life and develop despair, often leading to feelings of depression and hopelessness.

Lemon or Lemonade?

Hardship, disappointment, loss, failure or rejection do have powerful impacts on us emotionally / psychologically. Most of us are wired in a way to be more sensitive to the negative than the positive. How we respond is crucial – can we find ways of making a lemon into lemonade? A helpful book by Robert Schuller was titled “Success is never ending – Failure is not permanent.” Counselling can be helpful to come to terms with our negative experiences and in breaking the cycle of unhealthy behaviours.

Acceptance of one’s place in the life cycle is a goal and with it comes growth in wisdom.

How to Flourish.

Another researcher in the area of living well is Martin Seligman who wrote a book called “Flourish.” He identified 5 factors as particularly significant – Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Achievement. Meaning especially has its roots in the spiritual dimension – so too does hope. Much research in the health area has found positive correlations with having an active religious faith. A powerful illustration for the spiritual “journey” is seen in Homer’s “The Odyssey ” written 700 years BC. Initially the hero goes on a journey to fight in the Trojan war and has many epic adventures before returning to his home and family. It was a second and subsequent journey and its symbolic tasks that had profound meaning and led to greater fulfilment.

Spiritual Aspects

My conclusion from delving into this topic, is that one’s later years are eminently suited to taking a spiritual journey further and deeper with the consequences being personal growth and fulfilment and positive effects on the lives of those around you. If life has purpose and God exists, then knowing God and living in line with his purposes for one’s life must be the ultimate satisfying experience.

The promised fruit of this spiritual life (Galatians 5:22 ) – love , joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control would, to me, represent the hallmarks of a successful life and be attributes which would assist a person in meeting the potential challenges that one may face in old age.

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