This One Thing Can Make Older Adults Happier
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”—Steve Jobs
There are many paradoxes in life. Periodically, contemplating death is one of them. The word periodically is underscored because you can become infatuated by a thing, and that can become more harmful than good. Someone described this affinity with death as being exposed to the sun or looking at the sun too long. The sun has beneficial properties. Vitamin D is one of them. But too much sun is not good. It can eventually cause damage to the eyes and skin. Death is the same way. A heightened “awareness of death increases anxiety and decreases well-being for individuals who lack appropriate psychological buffers” one study found. One of the main psychological buffers is wisdom.
According to The Journals of Gerontology, “wisdom provides not only clarity of insight but also tools and coping resources to deal with stressors and hardship.” Wisdom is knowledge; it can refer to general wisdom-related knowledge in understanding life in general, for example, life management, life planning, and life review. Wisdom is also reflection; it involves insight, self-reflection, emotional regulation, decisiveness in the face of uncertainty. And wisdom is compassion; it includes tolerance of different value systems and attitudes such as empathy and altruism.
Wisdom in aging is developmental. It is not a personality trait. Wisdom is perceived as a virtue in old age. It requires understanding a deeper truth which “necessitates knowledge of the positive and negative aspects of human nature, of the inherent limits of knowledge, and of life’s unpredictability and uncertainties,” write authors Ardelt and Jeste. The writers also postulate that to reach such understanding, “individuals need to engage in (self-)reflective thinking to perceive phenomena and events from multiple perspectives which is the reflective dimension of wisdom.” As a result, self-centeredness is reduced and acceptance of human nature is increased, resulting in greater compassion for others and the motivation to help others in need, which is the compassionate dimension of wisdom. Knowledge (cognitive) along with the reflective and compassionate domains equate to wisdom.
The wisdom of aging helps older adults buffer adversities in life. Adversities such as a serious illness, the death of a loved one or closed friend can affect the well-being of older adults. But wisdom gives older adults coping resources and tools, especially the ability to:-
- see the reality of life clearly, including the positive and negative,
- consider life from different perspectives,
- apply life-valuable lessons from previous experiences as well as
- be mindful, which helps to regulate and ultimately overcome negative emotions, such as bitterness, blame, and despair, through an acceptance of reality and forgiveness of others and oneself.
See the reality of life clearly
C’est la vie—It is what it is— is a way of expressing acceptance. Some researchers claim that acceptance of things which make us unhappy is the road to contentment. Acceptance is not the same as resignation and it is not the avoidance of negative emotions. Rather, acceptance is defined as the process of deliberately engaging with negative emotions. For example, older adults who are terminally ill may find peace when they accept their condition, says Lisa Rogers, a professional care manager at Intervention Associates:
Finding peace in what’s happening to them and their body and around them and their family come with a level of acceptance. Some people don’t always get to that point, maybe the family member who’s going through it, but as for the individuals themselves, I find that in some ways once they’re able to accept what’s happening to them, that’s when they’re able to be at peace and able to transition.
To die well comes with acceptance. “A lot of times it is when people struggle emotionally or physically with what’s happening to their bodies and feelings—some level of not being in control of the situation” that more negative emotions are incurred, explains Rogers. Rogers sees part of her duty as making sure her clients are not suffering but are as comfortable as possible.
Consider life from different perspectives
Volunteering is one way to consider life from different perspectives. Loneliness, which has become a public health concern, can be combated through volunteerism. Helping others removes the focus from oneself to others. As a result, volunteerism helps with depression and even living longer. Meeting new people and helping others can boost self-esteem and sense of well-being for older adults. A strong sense of well-being is a significant component of wisdom.
Sometimes when it is not possible to volunteer, in the case of terminally ill patients, then the help of therapists in the area of art, music, massage or storytelling can help patients find solace elsewhere.
“Sometimes massage and music therapy just help patients and their families relax—take their mind off everything that’s happening to them and their body—and then sometimes can provide some pain relief or just comfort. Because your body goes through so much, it provides a level of comfort that doesn’t come with, perhaps, medication, “explains Rogers.
Apply life-valuable lessons from previous experiences
Other therapists, such as dignity therapists, can help patients apply valuable lessons from previous experiences in the form of storytelling. Dignity therapy, according to WebMD, is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on helping patients with terminal illnesses to go over things that are most meaningful to them and document their legacy. Sometimes this document is a form of asking forgiveness from family members. Other times the document serves as a physical embodiment of who the individual was. Dr. Harvey Chochinov, the psychiatrist who created the therapy, recounts an experience with an alcoholic patient who had a very troublesome life and who simply wanted to document his story so that his grandchildren would choose a better way.
Chochinov wanted his therapy to help people come to peace with their lives, and he was trying to get the man to remember some good times. But the man was having none of it:
“I remember him saying, ‘I don’t want to talk about Christmas — I don’t remember many very happy Christmases, and that’s not why I’m doing this,’ ” says Chochinov.
Chochinov says people who are troubled sometimes use the narratives to formally ask their families for forgiveness. But this guy wasn’t even doing that.
“He was way past being forgiven,” says Chochinov. “He simply wanted his grandchildren to know who their grandfather was so they could choose a better way.”
It is only in reflecting that patients are able to make sense of their journeys and understand life’s lessons.
Mindfulness is a great way for older adults to practice acceptance in the present moment. It is a way to practice letting go and gratitude. Because mindfulness incorporates deep breathing, it is a way to calm the emotions, such as fear and anxiety which so often characterize death.
The opportunity to continue to grow is ripened in old age. It is to become what human beings are, homo sapiens, which in Latin means “wise man.”