Fulfillment and Aging

by Sheldon Ornstein Ed.D, RN, LNHA

             There are many individuals in their later years who question their continued mental functioning with this thought, “Will I become senile?” The fear of growing old casts a shadow over many lives in our society long before the first deep wrinkle announces that old age has arrived. Yet, most people retain resources and powers well into and far beyond what we or they imagine.

             Our hostile and exclusive treatment of the old is the result simply of ignorance and our acquiescence to social attitudes they may have earlier helped to form.

            What we miss, as a society and as individuals, is not just the traditional wisdom of grey hairs, but a huge store of creativity, subtle judgment, untapped love and boundless energy.

            Insight into what should be, but unfortunately seldom is the time of genuine fulfillment. It is also that inevitable ending that profoundly affects all who deal with the old or those who are becoming old, and that means everyone.

            Therefore, as a segue to my thoughts on fulfillment about growing old, allow me to inquire whether fulfillment isat all possible and my next question should be “what is it like to be old?” Much of the answer can be found in the kind of person we are now.

            Aging doesn’t take hold of us like some powerful outside source that bends our personality this way or that. More often we continue to work upon our own experiences and cope with our own life challenges according to the patterns set in earlier years.

            True, most of us will undergo some of the same objective changes whether it be greying, wrinkling, altered occupational complications, financial status and so on. But what these changes can mean to us will depend much upon the way we have learned to interpret life in general.

            This doesn’t necessarily mean our personalities remain constant with age, but it is the direction and extent of these changes as we age. This can be viewed in relationship to the type of person we have been all along.

            Some people remain relatively fixed in their ways from mid-life onward. Others may show a pattern of openness to experience that continues throughout life. They, in fact, become a broader and deeper version of the sort of person they were at an earlier time.

            Although the quality of experiences in old age depends much upon the individual, it is interesting to examine the patterns that are revealed when a large number of elderly men and women were asked to describe their experiences with life. This was accomplished in a careful research sampling of several thousand who participated in a Pew study with ages from 18 to 80. The preliminary assumption was that old age is a time of unmitigated misery. This belief took quite a beating from the results. In fact, the majority of older men and women reported almost as much life satisfaction as did their juniors.

            Chronological age, by itself, was a poor indicator of satisfaction. By far the greater number of elderly people in the survey agreed with the statement that “the things I do are as interesting to me as they ever were.” Let’s all agree then with the idea that satisfaction is possible at all ages.

            The difference between contentment and despondency seems to depend more on the challenges and opportunities that present themselves in an immediate life situation.

            In closing may I recommend that we all maintain a sense of humor. An upbeat attitude and a healthy sense of humor won’t keep us from getting hit by trouble(s), but it will help us handle it if we do get hit. You can laugh at the craziness of it all, or you could choose to cry. I certainly say crying can be cleansing, but humor is healing – so choose laughter.

Editor's Note: Dr. Ornstein joins the ACHCA Blog as a regular contributor; watch for his posts around the 6th of each month. 

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