The Art of Aging Gracefully

just the two of them alone in the wilderness. Donna is
80.

"People think we're nuts," he says. But for him, aging with a crappy
attitude is simply out of the question.

The Spradlins have grown old with astonishing grace and acceptance. But
depression is a real threat among the old; some drift into isolation,
bitterness, and a sense of meaninglessness. Still others put up their dukes,
determined to go down swinging. Face-lifts and tummy tucks? Bring it
on.B B B

Experts who have worked with thousands of seniors share their insights into
how you can navigate emotional challenges in order to age gracefully.B




The Old Are Survivors



It's true that aging brings hardships, but remember that the old are
survivors -- a select group.

Wisdom, resilience and a mature perspective are often cited as the hard-won
prizes of aging. But growing old itself is an accomplishment.

"But if you get to be older, you have survived a lot of the threats to
your physical and psychological integrity that have affected other people who
are no longer around," psychologist Whitbourne says.

Through good luck or good genes or both, the old have dodged fatal
accidents, premature disease, and other things that kill the young. "You
are stronger, and you get to live longer," she says. "Most people think
that's a benefit."

A dose of healthy denial can improve outlook in one's later years, she adds.
"The people who do the best with aging aren't thinking that much about
getting older. They're not really focusing on what's not working anymore. If
you sit around mulling over the meaning of existence and how time is running
out, you're building in a scenario where you're not going to age as
successfully."




Accepting Changes



Accept the inevitable changes of aging, rather than seeing them as aberrant
crises.B

During the course of his career, Illinois psychologist Mark Frazier, PsyD,
has worked with thousands of older people "ages 65 to 105," he
says.

Again and again, he's seen an important key to psychological health:
accepting that your life won't stay the same. Aging changes everyone.

"If you live until you're 95 years old, you're probably not going to be
living alone in a beautiful apartment and driving your car to the grocery store
and picking up your dry cleaning and walking a mile to the park. But if you
know that ahead of time, it's much easier to manage it," he
says.B B B

"To age gracefully, one needs to anticipate the changes that are
inevitable," Frazier says. "People who think rigidly do not do that. As
they encounter the natural changes and health status that are part of aging,
these things are experienced as negative and adding a lot of stress and strain
to their life. Rigid thinkers tend to get overwhelmed. They can't manage it,
and they get depressed."

"Other people anticipate what's going to happen," he says. "It's
more of a 'Yes, I knew this was coming and I know that I'll negotiate my way
through it.'"




Avoiding Stereotypes



Get over your own stereotypes about growing older.

Sue Ellen Cooper, 62, understands Ephron's dirge about "compensatory
dressing" and obligatory hair dye. "It's not disgraceful to mourn the
loss of your beauty," Cooper says.

"But it's going. So you may as well do what you can and then forget it
because there's so much more to life than how you look and what other people
think of you."

Almost a decade ago, Cooper started the Red Hat Society to celebrate women
50 and over. Red Hat now boasts 40,000 chapters in the U.S. and abroad. Most
members wear red hats and purple dresses to the group's social
outings.B B B

But Cooper admits that when she was younger, she harbored prejudice against
older people. "When I would meet people, I'd think, "She probably
wouldn't be a potential friend for me because she's 20 years older -- just
these things where e make a split-second judgment on appearance."

Having met thousands of older women through the Red Hat Society, she has
replaced the stereotypical thinking with a positive view of aging gracefully.
"First impression doesn't tell you a thing. Some of these people have had
incredible lives and careers and still have a great sense of humor and a lot of
intellect, and the culture will write them off: 'Oh, she's an old lady and
she's overweight.'"

"OK, world, here we are: 'old women,'" Cooper says defiantly.
"We're about gathering women together as they get older and having that
companionship and friendship that makes it less scary for women in this
culture. We're still cool."




Finding Meaningful Activities



Continue to find meaning later in life.

"Retirement has always been a time when we see people withdraw from
their roles," says Pauline Abbott, EdD, director of gerontology at the
Institute of Gerontology, California State University, Fullerton. During this
risky time, some older people succumb to depression and a sense of
meaninglessness.

"Part of the challenge of aging gracefully is that you have to continue
to find things that are important to you," Frazier says.

That can include travel, spiritual pursuits, hobbies, new social groups,
lifelong learning, or recapturing time with family if one lacked the chance
during the career years, experts say.

Plan for purposeful activities before you retire, Abbott says. "It
should be a transition. It shouldn't be, 'Stop work one day and fall off a
cliff.' It's time to follow where your passions lie."

Without meaningful goals, "You get into this whole attitude of 'Oh, my
gosh -- woes me. My memory's going, I'm slow, all I do is go to wakes and
funerals,'" Frazier says. "If you don't have important things out in
front of you, there's enough about the aging process that is not positive and
you can get caught up in what you don't like about it."



By Katherine Kam
Reviewed by Louise Chang
B)2005-2006 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved

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