Embracing The Ageing Body: Growing Older With Confidence
The Spectre Of Ageing And Death
Growing older can involve many difficulties, such as loneliness, or the loss of loved ones. But for many people it is the ageing process itself that is most challenging. The decline of youthfulness and good health, the awareness of inching towards death, can leave us feeling scared and angry.
We may try to ignore or deny the changes in our body, or fight them at every turn. But as the process continues regardless, we are left ever more stressed and depressed.
However, a few older people seem to be able to meet the ageing process with cheerfulness, wry humour, and a real lightness of heart. So how do they do it?
Not Just An Ending, But A Growing
Psychologists refer to something called the “end-of-history illusion”, which is the natural human tendency to think we have completed all our changing as a person, and we will now be absolutely stable and fixed as a character in the future. The older we get, the more likely we are to think we’ve ‘arrived’ at this kind of end-point.
In reality, regardless of age, we are always changing. And this means we never lose our capacity to learn and grow. In fact, there are particular opportunities for growth in old age that can have a transformational impact on our wellbeing.
- Blossoming inwards: Old age can be a time of great freedom and lightness of spirit. Things that used to feel like a burden – tradition, preconceptions, the expectations of family or society – can be shrugged off or simply left behind. We can look inside ourselves more deeply, consider what brings us meaning, and be less worried about what others think of us. We can focus on what really brings joy into our life, and rediscover the kind of natural buoyancy seen in children.
- Gazing outwards: Our natural pace changes as we age. There is less pressure to pack a hectic schedule into each day, and everything seems to slow down. We can use this to cultivate an attitude of wonderment about the world – a curiosity about life in all its smallest aspects. We can pay attention to those around us, welcoming connection in all its forms. When life is slower, even small interactions such as witnessing a child’s smile can bring enormous pleasure. By directing our attention to the small experiences that make the heart leap, even the oldest face can light up with radiance and joy.
Meeting The Body With Kindness
The ageing of the body, with all its sagging and wrinkling, can be very difficult to face in a youth-obsessed world (and can hit women particularly hard). Older people of both sexes often feel unwanted by society, and they retreat from it in shame.
But dwelling on the loss of our youthfulness and good health, or spending too much time complaining about it to others, often leads to anxiety and bitterness.
Instead, it can be helpful to cultivate an attitude of curiosity and kindness towards what is happening to the body. We may notice things like slower reflexes or loss of hearing, and consider how we will adapt and care for ourselves as these progress. We might change our diet to respond to different digestive needs, or change the way we walk to maintain balance.
Older people often consider themselves no longer fit to be desired. They bury their own desire, and relegate their sexuality to the past.
But even as the body withers, sensuality remains fully present. Loving touch with a partner becomes less about visual stimulation and more about the pleasure of the softness of skin, the warmth and simple presence of another body, the emotion experienced by the joining of hearts.
Opening ourselves to the joys of this kind of slow sensuality in our later years can put a spring in the oldest step. As French psychologist Marie de Hennezel puts it: “The warmth of the heart prevents your body from rusting”.
Discovering Our Golden Years
Approaching the end of life does not need to be feared. Instead of spending our time rebelling against the wrinkles and slowing-down and exhaustion, we can look at life differently and discover stillness, unhurried sensuality, and personal freedom.
The richness of all this comes not in spite of, but in tandem with acknowledging the losses of an ageing body. It happens when we meet the ageing process face-on. Then, much to our own surprise, we may find ourselves growing older with confidence, courage, and a genuine sense of optimism.