Navigating Age-Related Change

We all experience a variety of changes across our life span; some we experience directly and some we experience in proximity to those in our inner circle.  As we age the frequency, complexity and intensity of change increases.  How we navigate these changes can and does influence the impact these changes has on our physical, emotional and cognitive well-being.

While most of us live our lives day to day and week to week, navigating through the changes that come with life requires proactive, advanced planning in which we thoughtfully examine our values and desires so that we can live our current and future days with intention.  We should all have a Life Plan that includes a section for how you want to live your life in your current capacity (Current Life) and a section for how you would want to life if the unexpected or unwanted happened (“What if” Life).  Having a documented a well thought out Life Plan can decrease the need to make a major life decision while in the midst of a crisis (which is the worst time to make such decisions). A Life Plan can also help us retain control.  In the words of Peter Drucker: “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

Components of a Life Plan

The “What if” Plan section of the Life Plan addresses how you want to respond to unexpected changes in your life. This is on par with an advanced directive; something we should all complete and revise as our needs and desires change.  Also included in this section should be the fine details of how you want live each day (routine), where you want to live and perhaps most importantly, the way in which you want to be treated and supported should the unexpected happen.  The Five Wishes, published by Death & Dignity is one tool for creating an advance directive.  Another is the Conversation Project created by the Conversation Project in Boulder, Colorado.  Again, when we have this detailed information in writing and available for our family friends, emergency staff and care staff to review, we significantly increase continued control over our lives.

The Current Life Plan section addresses living your present life with intention.   Are you spending the current minutes of your daily life in a manner that gives you a sense of purpose, meaning and belonging?  Living your life by your design and not by someone else’s default on how you should be living is perhaps the ultimate control.  Or are you letting the minutes of your life slip away, unlived? Does your current life include support needed for the “What If” Plan?  In his book, The Mature Mind; the Positive Power of the Aging Brain, Dr. Gene D. Cohen, offers uplifting inspirations for how to “…use well the time we have left” but also how to create a strong support system to help in navigating the upcoming age-and-life-related changes.   Creating this plan is often difficult as it requires us to honestly examine how our own choices are adding to or depleting from our sense self-esteem, purpose and joy.

In reality, it isn’t likely that we will be able to follow our Life Plan to the letter, but the exercise of creating one can provide us with a more solid idea of how we are living today and how we want to live tomorrow.  To paraphrase a famous quote of President Eisenhower: “plans on useless, planning is everything”.

Even with the best plans in-hand the process of contemplating potential changes and responding to real changes requires us to make adaptations to our intentions and to our lives.  Both efforts can leave us with an impending sense of loss of control leading to heightened feelings of vulnerability, anxiety and sadness. Our hearts and souls fill with grief.  This grief needs to be mourned.  It is only through mourning that we are able to examine our feelings and find reconciliation with our current and emerging realities.  When we do not take this journey we stay stuck where we are unable to move forward with life in a meaningful way.

Mourning is a journey that cannot be taken alone. It requires a companion/guide who will walk beside us.  Reach out to the friends and family in your inner circle able to provide empathetic and non-judgmental support and who will allow you to set the pace of your mourning.  If members in your inner circle are not able to fill this role, then connect with a professional grief counselor who can.    Your well-being depends on it.


Coping With the Holiday Blues

While so many holiday carols tell us this is the ‘most wonderful time of the year’ for many it is not.  For those who have had a significant person in their life move away or die or who are experiencing a decline in health (their own or a loved one’s) the holidays often serve as a reminder of these losses.  Unresolved feelings of sadness and isolation will rise to the surface.  Left unsupported, these difficult emotions can trigger profound depression.

Depression is not a normal part of aging and is treatable. If a family member, friend, neighbor, or you yourself are showing the following behaviors it is important to seek support from a medical provider or professional counselor.
If in need of immediate assistance, contact the National Crisis Hotline at: Crisis Call Center – 1 (800) 273-8255

Signs of Depression

  • Memory difficulties or personality changes.
  • Physical aches or pain.
  • Fatigue, loss of appetite, excessive sleeping or difficulty sleeping.
  • Often wanting to stay at home, rather than going out to socialize or doing new things.
  • Suicidal thinking or feelings, especially in older men.
  • Excessive use of alcohol.

How can you help fend off loneliness and the holiday blues for someone in your life?

  • Spend time together. Social isolation is one of the biggest predictors of depression. If you live a long distance away, connect by phone, “Skype” or “Face Time.”
  • Actively listen. Avoid giving solutions or passing judgment. Allow them to talk through their feelings of grief; it is a key part of the healing process.
  • Ask about which celebrations or traditions they loved most at this time of year. While reminiscing may bring on tears, it is also a way to heal the soul. Ask if they have considered beginning new traditions of their own.
  • Encourage them to seek medical care or professional counseling to help them work through their grief so they can once again find joy in their lives at this and any other time of year.

How to Cope with Loss and Grief

What to do when your feelings of grief are not understood by the people in your life. 

The longer we live, the more familiar we become with the experiences of change and loss.  When a loved one dies (the ultimate experience of change and loss), our related grief is given validation and support through a wide range of public ceremonies and rituals; yet, there are many other grief-triggering events we experience in life that do not have access to the same wealth of support.  I’m referring to major life events such as: our children leaving home; retirement; the need to downsize and relocate to a new home and, probably, a new neighborhood; a decline in our own or a loved one’s health; or the death of a dear pet. These types of losses (referred to as symbolic loss) can, like a death, trigger feelings of sadness, emptiness, loss of place and purpose; but, unlike death, they are not often granted validation or emotional support; this is why these feelings are referred to as “disenfranchised grief”.

As Theresa Rando points out in her book, How to go on living when someone dies (1991): “Grief is a reaction to all kinds of losses, not just death.  Grief is based upon your unique individualistic perception of the loss.  It is not necessary for you to have the loss recognized or validated by others for you to experience grief.”

But when we don’t receive that validation from others or, more importantly, from ourselves, we tend to push our feelings of grief deep inside; giving the external world and often ourselves the illusion we are dealing with it all just fine, when more than likely we are not.  A good way to recognize if you are grieving is to reflect on any changes in your daily habits and general well-being.  For as British Psychologist Henry Maudsley so wisely observed back in the early 1900’s; “The sorrow which has no vent in tears may make other organs weep.”

Healthier Tips for Coping

Here are some healthy coping strategies for supporting yourself while working through your own issues of symbolic loss:

  • Understand that in contrast to what the majority of well-meaning friends and family think: just “getting on with life” without coming to a personal acceptance of your loss is not in your best interest.
  • Seek support from family and friends who love, affirm and listen to you with an open mind and ears and non-judgmental hearts.  If they tell you to “get over it” or that you are being “overly sensitive” find a different support circle.
  • Learn to trust yourself.  Even those with the best of intentions may attempt to provide answers and closure for you. This is your journey, not theirs.
  • Unresolved grief can lead to declines in health and quality of life, so giving daily focused attention to your own care needs is extremely important.  Integrate into each week exercise, eating a healthy nutritious diet, meditation, journaling, being out in and connected to nature and spending time with supportive friends and family.
  • Be kind and loving to yourself and try to take comfort in the knowledge that your feelings are normal.
  • Seek guidance and support from a qualified professional if your feelings overwhelm you to the degree they affect your ability to function or if you are using addictive or harmful behaviors as a way to cope.

Remember to Get Support so you can Feel Better.