Exploring Retirement: Jeanette Lewis

Jeannette Lewis, contributorJeanette is one of the regular writers for Exploring Retirement. Each month she contributes an inspirational article on living life to the full in retirement.

Accepting my Aging Self

Aa few weeks ago as I sat in the waiting area of my doctor's office I indulged in a favourite pastime, people watching. I noticed that most of the other patients were, like me, people in older age groups. Many depended on the assistance of walkers, canes or wheel chairs. Some held onto another person to steady them.

Watching other people who were older and more frail was a powerful reminder that none of us will escape growing old. We'll need coping strategies as we adapt to physical and mental changes. I felt fortunate to have walked from my car into the waiting area without assistance. I wondered how it would feel to depend on an assistive device for mobility or on a personal care assistant for meeting basic needs.

I resolved that I will not fight the inevitable changes that come with growing older. Instead, I will re-direct my energy to accept my aging self. I will not be bogged down by a negative attitude nor will I obsess about the challenges of growing older.

I'll begin by acknowledging and recognizing that all bodies and faces age. Most of us have looked in a mirror and wondered why an old-looking face stares back. We tell ourselves that growing old is not shameful, nor is it something to dread yet seeing oneself as an old person can be a shock.

There's no point in feeling embarrassed about the reality of aging. Rather than fight aging, isn't it smarter to adapt to changes? Denial of the inevitable means preventive adjustments to make the later phase of life easier, are postponed, delayed, or rejected. Perhaps the people in the waiting room who used walkers or canes had made a decision about preventing disability. Use of an assistive device to help with balance or mobility rather than risk falling and breaking a bone can be a smart decision.

I will try to understand limitations that occur as I grow older. Youthful invincibility is a happy memory. Sometimes an accident or an illness serves as a reminder about aging. Last winter I took a hard tumble on an icy street and badly bruised my shin. The bruise took weeks to heal and served as a reminder of my stubborn disconnection with balance limitations now that I’m in my seventh decade. I'll also honour mental limitations such as forgetting names of people or places. If it takes longer to learn how to use new technology or to master a yoga flow sequence, so what? I know that I have mastered complex mental challenges in the past.

Another limitation related to accepting my aging self is taking more care when driving. Because I don't see as well at night I will avoid driving long distances after dark especially on nights when roads are slick with rain or snow. For many elders, understanding driving limitations may mean giving up the driver's licence completely. In Ontario, Canada, where we live, all drivers 80 years of age and over must pass a test every two years when renewing a driving licence. Public policy was needed because too many people did not recognize that aging may bring cognitive impairment and slow response to road hazards.

I'm also learning to ask for and accept help. Too often stubbornness prevents an elder from accepting help when it is offered. Last fall, rather than accept our son's offer to help us clean up a 6-inch deep layer of oak leaves at our large cottage lot, my husband and I struggled with leaf blowers and rakes for several days cleaning up massive clumps of wet leaves after an early snowfall. Our independent nature may be a strength but it's important to recognize when help is needed. Instead of stubbornly struggling with a difficult physical task, we could have accepted our son's genuine offer of help. We might have recognized that he wanted to give the gift of his time. We did accept his offer of help when it was time to change the batteries in our smoke alarms. Instead of climbing a tall ladder to reach 12 foot ceilings and risk falling, we called on the agility of our son who proudly finished the task in minutes.

Accepting help sometimes means paying for services that you previously did for yourself. There's no point in having money in the bank when help with housekeeping, gardening, landscaping, home maintenance, or snow removal is needed. Most older adults don't hesitate to pay for medical, legal or financial advice but will equivocate over spending money that will make daily living easier. If you have money saved for a rainy day, it's time to use it and enjoy the comfort it can buy!

I take inspiration from the lifestyle of my late mother who lived independently in the family home until she was 90. As she aged, she learned to pace herself and limit the number of activities she undertook in a day. She rested after going out for shopping, or to an event. After widowhood at age 50, she learned to take responsibility for herself. She kept a healthy lifestyle without great physical effort by walking every day in the small village where she lived. She cooked her own food, ate well, and got enough sleep. Until the last year of her life, she enjoyed good health. Her garden, her hobbies, and her relationships were sources of pleasure.

My mother's example of aging well prompts me to be aware of medical and physical needs to maintain health. I'll keep in touch with my medical doctor and get preventative tests even when feeling well. Regular dental examinations, vision tests, hearing tests, mammograms, flu shots, vaccinations, blood pressure checkups, and bone density tests will be scheduled. Since most of these preventative tests are done with little or no cost after age 65, I'll remember that such tests will help with staying informed of medical issues. It's easy to get sick and it gets harder to remain healthy when growing older.

Accepting my aging self doesn't mean that I will give myself permission to be "old" in my thinking. I will honour good memories but always try to live in the present rather than the past.

I'll remember that I am one of the lucky people who managed to have a long life. Many never experience aging nor the joy of a full life. I'll remember that every day is precious as old age comes but once. When faced with age-related setbacks, I will try to embrace the change remembering that my body is no longer 40 or 50 or 60 years old.

Growing old is in itself an accomplishment. Acknowledging and accepting aging is an essential part of everyone's journey. I'll focus on remaining healthy and self-assured while concurrently staying realistic about the new, older self that is emerging.