I recently saw the movie The Lady in the Van with Maggie Smith in the leading role. In a nutshell, the film is the adaptation of a memoir about an elderly women who has fallen on tough times and is forced to live out her late years in a shabby van parked in the driveway of her reluctant host, a playwright who eventually tells her story. While reviews have been mixed, it is clear that the subject matter touches on a critical issue: How much, or how little, does it take for things to go awry as we age? Like in this case, growing old can be outright scary.
The fear of aging, of course, is not limited to financial concerns, although they often take center stage. Deteriorating physical and mental health, loss of loved ones, social isolation, and the progressive inability to cope with daily tasks and challenges can make people dread the so-called "golden years" rather than embrace them.
Such fear can manifest itself in numerous ways. "Gerascophobia," as the scientific term is called, can generate forms of stress and anxiety that can be quite debilitating. These may oftentimes be unfounded, but they are not necessarily irrational. Aging does in fact entail significant losses and forces us to let go of what we have long taken for granted.
Especially in our society that so strongly favours self-reliance, it can be hard to imagine how a life dependent on the help of others could be worthwhile. Surveys show that most adults are more afraid of losing their independence in their twilight years than they are of death.
And yet, considering that ever-larger portions of the population are entering their senior years, we will sooner rather than later be forced to re-examine our views of aging with all its implications.
Yes, many people live longer and are healthier and more active late in life than their parents and grandparents could ever imagine. But many also struggle with chronic diseases and disabilities that diminish their prospects. Learning to deal with all sides of the aging process is a real challenge.
While this is undoubtedly true, it is another matter how we relate to that obvious fact.
By definition, loss is something that happens to us against our will. We don't normally perceive it as a gift, a blessing, a chance, or anything else positive. The losses that come with age are generally impoverishing, not enriching or enhancing. But it doesn't have to be this way.
"For some, the downsizing that inevitably comes with age is like living in a mournful country-western song, suffering one loss after another. Angry and embittered, they become cranky or depressed. For others, it becomes a kind of spiritual journey, an opportunity to affirm what is really of value. Finding new interest and meaning in life around them, they become wise and content," writes Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker, a psychologist, family counselor, and columnist for Psych Central.
Finding something new in the disappearance of the old and familiar is indeed the best outcome we can hope for -- if we are open to it. A friend of mine once compared the way she tried to handle her own aging experience to "pruning of an old tree." You cut back and dispose of what is no longer fruitful. But you also make space for anew growth, and you may be surprised at times what still emerges.
If loss is what we undergo passively, letting go -- consciously and willingly -- is the active countermeasure we can take. This is not resignation in the face of the inevitable, but the human spirit staying in control and remaining intact, regardless.
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