Successful aging involves maintaining as healthy a lifestyle as possible, watching our eating habits, staying physically active, having a sense of purpose, fostering religious or spiritual ties, staying connected to family or a social group, and maintaining a positive mental attitude. But what happens when a detour comes along on our successful aging journey? Maybe a stroke that leaves us wheelchair-bound, a fall and dislocated hip, cognitive decline that impairs our ability to drive, disabling arthritis? We all know this is a long list.
Our self-talk plays a huge role in how well we manage these setbacks. When our inner dialogue is negative, it reinforces our self-limiting beliefs, adds stress, reduces our confidence and determination, and weakens our sense of control over the future. It handicaps us. In crude terms, carrying on this negative inner dialogue is like having one leg in a butt-kicking contest. It is a filter that screens out good things and only allows the bad to pass through. And, once this thinking style has taken over, we expect more of the same in the future. We extrapolate from this event that we’re only in store for more. That inner voice just keeps repeating the words, More of the same, My life is over, I’m ashamed to be in public, What kind of future do I have now, I don’t have it in me to get through this. And, most importantly, this negativity closes off that deep reservoir of energy that we have inside. We reduce our inner flame to a single spark. This is the very energy that otherwise fuels the drive and motivation to get us back on the road. This is the very flame that ignites the belief that we are allowed to be happy, we deserve to be happy, and the conviction that this positive spirit is ours and no one can take it away from us. And, even though this positive spirit, or energy, or drive, or grit, or whatever we want to call it, often gets blocked, we must remember that it is always there, inside each of us, ready and waiting to help. I’ve learned this from 30+ years working in nursing homes: it doesn’t go away and can always be tapped.
Successful aging means choosing to be grateful for all that has happened, even in the face of a serious challenge. It means focusing on what we have and not on what we don’t have, or what’s missing in our life. It means not comparing ourselves to others, and certainly not basing our self-worth on accomplishments or failures, or on health or sickness. Everyone has equal value and worth as a person, irrespective of whatever label or descriptor we assign. And to age successfully underscores the fact that everything is relative: there is always someone better off and someone who is worse off than I am.
The road ahead is not always smooth and well-paved. Accepting the cards we are dealt, while fixing what we can, and yet getting on with our lives means allowing the future to be bigger than our past. It means adapting to the setback and moving on. It means solution-focused coping instead of emotion-focused coping. And it means looking for new opportunities without the negative filters, regardless of our limitations. Maybe these words of the Dalai Lama will help those of us on this journey: There are two days that we cannot get anything done – yesterday and tomorrow.
The author is a clinical and geropsychologist who has worked with older adults for over three decades. His company, the Living to 100 Club, offers resources for seniors on successful aging and managing setbacks. The tagline for the Club is “turning aging on its head” capturing the notion that age is only a number and to not allow setbacks to interfere with a positive outlook about our future. He also hosts a live radio program on Voice America, every Friday at 2pm PT. www.Livingto100.Club. Please leave comments below, or send to firstname.lastname@example.org.