by Lois MacNaughton, BA, PCC
The narrative we share about aging in the western world continues to change as more and more baby boomers reach retirement age. We look, feel and act younger at 65 than our parents’ generation did, and we have different expectations about what aging will be like for us. There is an increasing desire to remain actively engaged and live life as fully as possible. Two competing narratives about aging in our culture create a dilemma regarding what we expect as we age. On one hand, the images and messages that we see in the media place a high value on maintaining youthfulness. A massive industry has grown around our attempts to maintain a youthful appearance and it continues to grow, providing age-defying products and services – a modern version of the fountain of youth. Western medicine supports this perspective by seeing aging as a condition that is curable. On the other hand, our bodies naturally continue to age and old ideas about how life should be and how we should act as we get older abound. So how can we tell if what we are experiencing is a valid aspect of aging or not? How does what we believe about aging help to create what we actually experience?
Increasingly I hear people say “I’m getting old” in reference to decreased mobility, aches and pains and a diminishing of the ability to hear and see as well as they did in the past. Interestingly, some of them aren’t even in their 50s yet! In most instances, there is a lack of curiosity about whether or not what is being experienced is actually a result of aging or the possibility that a change in how our bodies work may have a manageable solution. I am not suggesting that aging isn’t real, just that every symptom that arises may not be a natural function of aging, and the symptoms don’t have to contribute to feeling older than we actually are. So how can we tell if what we are experiencing is or is not a valid aspect of aging? If I say I am getting old and everyone around me agrees, there is little impetus to consider alternatives.
Recently I had a problem with the focus in one of my eyes. I needed to find out what was going on and it did cross my mind that it might well be a result of aging and that I may be losing part of my vision, which was scary. The diagnosis was “dry eye” and the treatment was simple. I learned that the oil ducts under our eye lids can dry up, especially in areas with dry climates like where I live – it could have happened to anyone of any age. Along with eye drops and a little TLC the ducts can be encouraged to function properly again.
A more serious example is that of the retired Lieutenant-Governor of Alberta, Donald Ethel, who was suffering symptoms associated with the early onset of dementia that were diminishing his physical and mental capacity in a way that made him seem much older than he is. Investigation led to uncovering a misdiagnosis and the realization that a procedure could rid him of the symptoms that were interfering with his ability to find pleasure and fulfillment in life. Had he and his wife accepted his condition as part of just getting old and not sought a deeper understanding of what was happening, his body and mind would have continued to decline. For more information about this go to http://ctv.news/Yoab1ph
There are many physical complaints that can pose a challenge for us and the longer we live the more opportunity we have to encounter them. Rather than just accept them as a natural part of getting older we need to be curious and find out what is really going on for us. Having the facts so we know what we are dealing with is crucial to our ability to manage our health and wellness effectively. Even when a diagnosis delineates a significant change in our lives and requires us to live differently, the narrative we believe about what we are experiencing has a dramatic effect on the level of fulfillment available to us in spite of diminishing physical or mental capacity.
I encourage you to be aware of the stories you tell about getting older. How do they influence how you live your life? How do they influence the lives of the people around you? Be curious about what you are experiencing, ask questions and seek the answers you need to help you live your life to the fullest.