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There Is A Dark Side To Getting Older

For many seniors, our work, our career roles define who we are.
Jerry Diakiw

My death is imminent. I have now passed the life expectancy for Canadian men of 80.2 years. I am a statistic. I have a 1% chance of reaching 90. No matter how you shake it, the bottom line is my days are numbered... literally.

The simple story is, so what? I've lived a privileged life with a rewarding career, a happy 56 year marriage, two wonderful daughters and a granddaughter; a life full of exciting travel, bursts of creativity, and decades of discovery. There's nothing left on my bucket list - if it's over today, I have no regrets. Statistically, it could all end in one day, or maybe, 20 more years.

Every day is living one 'now' moment after another. As Maggie Smith said in the movie "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel": "I don't buy green bananas anymore." But having said that, I don't deny that being 80 causes a lot of reflection on what happens to your mind and body as you age, and why.

My nephew, working in seniors' homes, witnesses many reactions to imminent death:

"I've meet a few men who decide to isolate themselves as they wait to die. I've also met quite a few who have to live their last years alone. I also have experienced the absolute terror that getting near to the end causes some. I've also cared for the opposite, people surrounded by people who love and respect them. They still light up a room just by their presence."

Lillian Rubin, a psychotherapist in her 80s, in her book, 60 on Up, opens with the declarative statement, "Getting old sucks. It always has, it always will." Writing about the heroism of old age in her book Life Beyond 85 Years, Mary C. Morrison, 87, after interviewing 150 seniors and documenting the dissipation of one's body and mind says, "Old age is not for the fainthearted." On the other hand, as Maurice Chevalier quipped, "Old age ain't so bad when you consider the alternative."

The most obvious sign of aging is increased physical disability. And this must be considered when assessing quality of life for seniors. It can't be measured by life expectancy only. Health-adjusted life expectancy, which is currently 69 years for men and 71 for women, suggests that the average person can expect to live 10.5 years of their whole life with some level of disability. Failing health is a fact of aging.

After fully retiring, I abruptly lost my sense of identity, of who I thought I was, and how I was perceived.

For decades, I've believed "age is about attitude not chronology." But it's difficult maintaining a youthful attitude when you can't get out of bed, or are losing your eyesight, or are incontinent. A time comes when "there is no pleasure worth forgoing just for an extra three years in the geriatric ward," says John Mortimer. Or as Woody Allen says, "You can live to be a hundred if you give up all the things that make you want to live to be a hundred."

Failing health can be attributed to more than just normal physical aging. While I accept my physical decline, I have noted dramatic psychological changes. After retiring, I returned to school to complete a doctorate, then began teaching courses at York University for another 20 years til I was 78. Though I changed roles, I felt no change in the challenge, rewards or sense of satisfaction of my work. But when I stopped teaching and fully retired, the floor fell out beneath me. Suddenly I felt an overwhelming sense of the loss of 'presence,' being here, noticed, listened to, looked at, changed by, interested in, appreciated, respected - but NOT invisibility! The chronic complaint of the elderly is that we are routinely talked over, ignored, pushed aside, psychologically, even physically. After fully retiring, I abruptly lost my sense of identity, of who I thought I was, and how I was perceived.

Certainly my identity as a father and spouse is one important role, but being a parent does not define one to the wider community. When I fully retired, I felt an immediate loss of a sense of being a contributor, of doing something important. A career can be so deeply rewarding that nothing outweighs that loss. "You may walk all day and do sudokus all night once retired, but still miss the social and intellectual stimulation of the workplace," one retiree said. My self-esteem plummeted.

For many seniors, our work, our career roles define who we are. Whether as skilled tradesmen, IT technicians, teachers or lawyers, it is especially difficult to surrender our career's daily achievements highs. The loss of our 'achievement' identity is a health risk, accompanied by a loss of self-esteem. In research studies, self-esteem plummets after 65. . . . Dramatically and shockingly! In one UK study of aging, about half of people 80 and over live alone; 20 per cent experience dementia; and suicide rates peak. So there are many psychological issues unique to the aged. The loss of self-esteem being one of the main causes of depression, and a definite health risk.

Yet, I still have above average self-esteem. I am not depressed (yet) but I must say, I feel the emotions that would pull one into a depressive abyss.

Jerry Diakiw

Common advice to the elderly is to stay connected, maintain happy relationships, engage with the community by volunteering. Certainly these are ways to ward off the dangers of psychological decline, but the achievement high of a cardiac surgeon performing a heart transplant is not equal to his retirement volunteer role stacking cans at a food bank. A kindergarten teacher, teaching one child for a school year, does not equal volunteering at a local hospital for a year.

Kali H. Trzesniewski, PhD, wrote that "...being in a happy relationships does not protect a person against the decline in self- esteem that typically occurs in old age." Nor does being in a happy "volunteer" situation, compensate for one's career achievement highs.

There are exceptions at every age, with individuals above or below "normal" levels of self-esteem. But what transpires in the lives of high-esteem individuals in old age? Why do I still have a high level of self-esteem? There are choices we make that increase happiness and contentment that extend our lives. Stay tuned!

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