Where do our fears of growing older come from, and what can we do when we reach a new life stage, and feel a sense of disorientation?
By the year 2050, the UN estimates that one in six people in the world will be over 65 years old, and nearly half a billion will be older than 80. This estimation brings up numerous questions about social care and public health, but another aspect of getting older is the role it plays in our culture, and our personal relationships with reaching new life stages.
A study conducted by Orb Media found that people who have a positive attitude towards getting older have better mental health and, incredibly, actually live longer. But despite the fact that ageing is one of the most natural parts of life, in a culture that fears it, it’s very easy to see how that ‘positive attitude’ is easier said than done.
And, as we hit milestones in our lives, and take a look around us at the other people who are doing the same thing, that process can be somewhat destabilising, as we try to work out who we are in relation to the sturdy rules we have in place about growing older, and the things that we believe we really ‘should have done by now’.
So, how can we foster a better relationship with ageing, and what can we do if we find ourselves feeling unsettled as we hit a new stage in our lives?
Fear of the unknown
“The fear of the unknown is a key element in the ageing process. This might be fears of failing health, financial and employment challenges, changing relationship dynamics, and, of course, fear of death,” says life coach Carol Pearson. “Not having achieved things we wanted to, and feeling less relevant in a youth-oriented world, may also make us feel less optimistic about the future.”
In the media, older people – in particular, older women – are less visible, which the charitable foundation, The Centre of Ageing Better, highlighted this in their report ‘Exploring representations of old age and ageing’, looking at how, when they are represented, they are often shown as the ‘perfect grandparent’, or as part of examples of either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ ageing.
Of course, there are exceptions – Netflix’s Grace and Frankie, and Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club often being heralded as a refreshing look at later life – but we’re a long way from perfect, and these unhelpful messages sink in, whether we’re aware of it or not.
Acting your age
As Fiona Dalziel – an intuitive holistic therapist – knows well, this fear of ageing can creep up on us, and wax and wane throughout our lives.
“Looking back, in my 20s and 30s, I remember always wanting to be younger, look younger, and feel younger, and would do everything I could to do this,” she explains.
In her late 30s, Fiona began to experience severe anxiety, which led to a breakdown, and her exit from a corporate career. With the help of a counsellor, and a lot of soul searching, she spent time considering what was really important to her.
But it wasn’t just growing up and hitting her own milestones, but her daughter’s, too, which brought on new emotions.
“When our daughter left home, she didn’t just move house, she moved to Italy! It had a huge impact on me at the time – I would stand in her room and cry every day for weeks. Her leaving left quite a gap in our lives, but we found that life after children really does exist, and being ‘home alone’ does have many benefits.”
Rather than forcing these kinds of emotions down over the years, Fiona started to take stock of the qualities and values that were important to her, working on herself as she moved through middle age.
“I felt a real need to embrace that woman, the real me. My 40th year was one big party, it was the greatest decade of my life until I reached my 50s! I embrace my age completely now – that doesn’t mean that I want to be old – I am just entirely comfortable with it.”
What is it that makes ageing so scary?
Life coach Carol Pearson shares four factors:
The physical and psychological ageing process. It can be difficult to come to terms with the loss of youthfulness, and embrace the ageing process with its wrinkles, grey hair, and other physical changes. This is especially significant if we work in industries and environments which place emphasis on this, or if we have linked our self-worth to our physical appearance. Instead, we can try to appreciate the qualities that maturity and wisdom bring, and manage ageing in a healthy and positive way, increasing focus and commitment to our wellbeing, vitality, and longevity.
Disorientation. Children leaving home, health issues, divorce, redundancy, etc. – this disorientation is a natural part of the transition period, as we develop our new identity, priorities, and direction.
Disappointment at not having achieved goals. As we age, it’s natural to take stock of our life journey, and this may bring sadness if we haven’t achieved key goals, or if we realise that we no longer find them meaningful. We may be left feeling bored, restless, discontented, and disillusioned. At this time, we can try to accept where we are, acknowledge and be grateful for what we have achieved, and develop new goals in line with our current values and interests.
Clinging to the past. It can be easy, yet futile, to cling to habits and perspectives of our past, and think about how things used to be. It’s much healthier, and more rewarding, to allow your lifestyle to evolve, and to incorporate optimism and dreams. It is possible to explore and grow in new ways, to acquire new skills, knowledge, wisdom, and experience.
In a similar way to Fiona, Michael Facherty also experienced a destabilising knock earlier in life, and the quarter-life mark.
“When I turned 25, I struggled to accept it. A quarter of a century seemed such a long time,” he said. “Never again have I felt like that. None of the big birthdays have caused any bad feelings – 30 through to 70 are all fine so far.”
So what is it that brings up these feelings in our 20s and 30s?
“In the first half of life, we tend to focus on achievement, acquiring knowledge through education and experiences, and financial resources through employment,” Carol explains. “The second half of life is the time to fully embrace who we are. For many, ageing brings the benefits of more self-reflection, acceptance, greater emotional regulation, empathy, and a sense of calm.
“As we get older, it’s likely we have developed greater perspective, anticipate problems, and can reason things out. Gratitude and wisdom take over from ego and ambition.”
For Michael, retirement gave him a new lease on life. And since then, he’s published three children’s books, become a live storyteller, portrays Father Christmas, and finds unbridled pleasure in spending time with his first grandchild.
“The greatest day so far, for me is 21 June 1975, when I married the love of my life. I suppose, my one concern with growing older is that it leaves less time for us to be together,” he says.
When asked how he would describe the relationship he has with himself at this stage of his life, Michael says: “Well, I really like me. Though I sometimes get cross with bits of me that ache, or aren’t as strong as they once were – we have a thing to clamp on to bottle and jar lids, to make it easier to get them off.”
It’s much healthier and more rewarding to allow your lifestyle to evolve, and to incorporate optimism and dreams
For some final words of advice, Carol suggests cultivating a ‘growth mindset’, one which means that you’re constantly trying new things and developing your skills, everything from hobbies to self-knowledge. With this comes greater self-awareness, where we can really understand ourselves and tap into a sense of confidence and acceptance.
“In recent years I have become really comfortable with who I am – I love me! I am open and honest, I embrace my age, I am learning new things, and I am growing,” Fiona says. “Having grey hair and enjoying being in my 50s doesn’t make me old, it makes me free – free to be me.”
It could be at 23 or 83, but it’s clear that destabilising moments, where we’re confronted by the inevitability of growing older, touch all of our lives. And though unpleasant, they prompt an opportunity to self-reflect, to assess the relationship we have with ourselves, and to scrutinise cultural pressures that may be the culprit behind those feelings. Ultimately, we can then choose to turn our backs on the things telling us who we are and what we should be doing, and forge our own paths towards a happy and contented future.