What makes aging a positive experience? Is it optimism and a joyful attitude? Is it having enough money and good health? Is it staying active and accepting what life offers—the trials and triumphs, the pleasure and pain? Joan Blumenfeld, MS, LPC, a former psychotherapist who works as a geriatric care manager in Connecticut, deals with the frail elderly. She describes what she does as “the hub of the care-giving wheel.”
“We help make the quality of life and death better for them and reduce the chaos in the family,” she says. Blumenfeld understands aging. She says, “I’m 82-and-a-half—because when you get over 80, you add the ‘half’ out of gratitude. The years from 60 to 70 can be wonderful, but from 80 to 100 not so much.” However, she’s quick to add, “This is one of the best times of my life.”
Turning 70 was pivotal, but 80 was “huge.” She threw herself a birthday party that her daughter described as “the party of the century,” with 62 guests and a deejay. She even took dancing lessons so she could do Viennese Waltz at the party.
“I’m cruising along and having a good time and being very productive,” she said, “but I’m pushing the age when half of us get Alzheimer’s,” which causes her anxiety because her mother died of the disease at 95.
“Every time I forget something important, I think, ‘Am I getting Alzheimer’s?’ Sometimes I’ll forget a name. And when I forget an appointment, I begin to wonder, ‘Am I losing it? What will I do?’”
In her practice, Blumenfeld sees the effects of disease daily and says Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and cancer are the three most difficult illnesses for seniors. The Centers for Disease Control estimate that 80 percent of Americans over 65 have one chronic condition while 50 percent have two or more.
Blumenfeld recently sold her home and got an apartment in a complex with 230 units, so she and her therapy dog Bromley, a Maltese, could interact with other people.
“Community and social interaction are so important, whether it’s through a church, a day-care program or social activity,” she continues. “At my age, I’m very open to meeting people and trying new things.”
Many of her friends are 20 years younger, and she enjoys being with them because “they’re not talking about aches and pains and losses but about kids and babies and college applications, business triumphs and setbacks and all the fullness of life, which I find energizing and interesting.”
Blumenfeld comes from a family that had a positive attitude, and therein she tries to give young people a hopeful vision of what aging can be. One young woman she had met at a Christmas party pleaded with her for the secret formula to aging well. She says it’s not cosmetic procedures and anti-aging creams or supplements, although she confesses to coloring her hair.
The secret is your mindset and thinking about aging positively.
“What has helped me age gracefully are good genes, good luck and good attitude!” she said. “In addition, I keep moving, maintain a good weight, stay engaged with the world and continue to work. I also stay closely connected to my family. As my brother says, ‘Family is hard to come by and easy to lose.’”
Nevertheless, she does think more about death now. Because of her work she’s around death a lot. “Sometime in the next 15 to 20 years I’m going to die, so I have specific instructions for my three children to give me a glass of red wine, play some Mozart and leave me alone to die a natural death.”
Maud Purcell, MSW, a psychotherapist and founder and executive director of The Life Solution Center, says that because growing old is about change, some very successful people don’t deal well with it.
They’re disconcerted by situations where they don’t have control and think they can stall the inevitable with superficial remedies like Botox, anti-aging formulas and cosmetic surgery—anything to grasp the semblance of youth.
“Some people who have the hardest time coming to terms with aging are often powerful and well off financially,” she pointed out, “and this is usually the first time they’re facing something over which they have no control.”
People who can’t see the positive side of aging can become clinically depressed, she says. For them, aging becomes a source of immense anxiety because it brings them closer to death and is usually accompanied by disappointments, such as the loss of a job, financial instability, health problems, the death of a loved one, loss of purpose and a sense of irrelevance.
She tells the story of a very handsome man with a successful acting career who had difficulty growing old because “it was something that couldn’t be controlled and there was no cosmetic solution.”
“If the basis of your identity is your physical appearance, aging is going to be much harder,” she said. “Some people become bitter and, sad to say, stay bitter because their looks are failing and their bodies are failing. Somehow they believed it wouldn’t happen to them. I’ve seen them die furious; that’s how they left the world.”
People with a positive outlook on aging, the ability to laugh at themselves and a spiritual foundation can respond well to therapy as they face the challenges of aging—regardless of what they are.
“People who have a belief in a Higher Power can accept and withstand the aging process and whatever comes with it,” she said. “They realize there’s an ultimate purpose beyond this life and that there’s a plan for the pain, sadness and loss they’re experiencing.”
Purcell also believes that aging is a gift because it forces us to change our view about the purpose of life, and this sometimes requires us to reevaluate everything we once thought was important.
The poet Robert Browning had a similar view and believed the greatest treasures for us lie in the second half of life. He wrote:
“Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, The last of life, for which the first was made: Our times are in His hand Who saith, ‘A whole I planned, Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!’”
By Joe Pisani
Joe Pisani, a journalist for 30 years, approaches life with wisdom and wit. He writes frequently for ACT TWO. His most recent pieces for ACT TWO include The Silver Tsunami, Grandpa? Pappy? What’s in a Name? and La Dolce Vita Americana.