ulysses butterfly

Image by Macinate

For the last couple of years I’ve been living at my parent’s place. This was a ‘bright idea’ on my part (they are both 83 and I thought it could be mutually beneficial). It turned out to be a VERY bad idea.  (If you are considering doing it, think very carefully.)  Not that we hate each other or fight all the time, just that it’s draining rather than nourishing.

This has meant that I have been around old people a lot. The main thing I have learned is that aging is about fragility. My parents are in (comparatively) very good health so could live for years. On the other hand my father is taking more naps and my mother had a nose bleed that landed her in hospital and that took hours to stop (she is on Warfarin a blood thinner to minimise the risk of strokes – I find it delightful that this is a human version of Ratsak. I like to think it says something about how much drug companies care for us.). So they could have years left, or lots less. This is what I mean by fragility.

The other thing I have learned is that older people tend to be stuck in their ruts, well and truly. As we see our mortality we can become freer, less attached to our ideas, opinions, and less mixed up with our friends and family. This brings a lightness and freedom to our lives. The older people I have been around (my parents and their friends and family) seem to have pretty much done the opposite. Theycling more tightly to objects, people and their ways of relating.

The best metaphor I know for this comes from early gestalt therapy practitioners: they said that people are like back to front butterflies – as we get older instead of emerging from thecocoon we tend to build a cocoon around us as we get older.

The clearest example of getting stuck in ruts that I have seen is arguments – or I should say the same argument, had hundreds of times (sometimes several times in the same day).

Which has led me to ask myself: how do I avoid this? Here are a few ideas I have come up with from my own thoughts and talking to older people, some of whom seem to have pretty much avoided the ruts.

  • 1. Maintaining interests. This needs to take account of declining strength. It will be hard to maintain an interest in sculpting marble as your strength declines. You may need to change the medium or shift to focusing on people in the field, perhaps distribute a newsletter or just enjoy being around sculptors.
  • 2. Make it a ‘habit’. A ‘habit’ to avoid a rut? What I mean is making a habit of trying new things: developing new relationships or interests. What I have in mind is things like subscribing to newsletters with courses in them that you can do, every so often trying out a new place to eat out instead of old favourites, going places where you will meet new people.
  • 3. Get good at listening. This is really a discipline to keep our relationships fresh. And a way to develop new relationships. If we become a good listener we are likely to have lots of friends.
  • 4. Find a way to get rid of the past (Eg. objects, interests, or unhelpful ways of relating). This means being in touch with our anger and sadness – and having a way of processing them. The processing can be done pretty much any way you like: may be by talking with friends, keeping a diary, using visualisations (such as imagining putting something in a ship and seeing it sail beyond the horizon), giving stuff away . . . the possibilities are endless.
  • 5. Reminiscing. Enjoying remembering is a delight. Recalling times of shared pleasure with friends is a pleasure. This is very different to hours spend complaining about how much worse the current world is. If you find yourself stuck in the past it is worth asking yourself why you do this. What it is ‘back there’ that met a need that is perhaps not being met now. You can then see if there is a way to meet that need in the here and now.

If there are others who have been learning about aging I’d love to hear your experience. Also any reflections you have on avoiding getting stuck in ruts. Please let me know in the comments.

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2 Comments to “Aging Well”

  1. Evan, your observations about the increased rigidity of elderly minds is supported not only by observation, but by scientific research.

    The good news is that we are more aware of these problems and more people seem motivated to exercise their brains in ways that ensure a richer old age. Even computer games like Brain Age can help with this. Just like physical exercise, staying mentally nimble takes commitment, but as you’ve seen, it’s worth it.

  2. Evan says:

    The new research about staying mentally and physically nimble (and how they can help each other) certainly is good news.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment Maria.

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