Rarely do I find the insults deliberate. Most stem from not understanding how the physical and psychological aspects of aging can produce epic personality changes.
This is the first of a three-part series exploring identity, changes, and aging. In this article, I’ll explain five components of identity and how aging affects each. In the second article, I’ll share helpful strategies for those who can still remember twenty-five-cent McDonalds hamburgers. I learned these from hospice patients I served and caregivers I counseled over the past ten years. The final article will contain suggestions for people who can’t quite understand why their parents and other older people have become so unreasonable.
The Aging World
For most people, aging is synonymous with a shrinking world. We retire, shrinking our social contacts and often goal-related activities. We become ill or disabled and either lose the ability to engage in activities important to us, or bumble through them. We lose our partners and face the world alone. And of course, we realize the time left for us is less than the time we have lived.
All of us—regardless of age—are what we do, believe, think, experienced and how close we place ourselves to death. When significant changes occur in any of these areas, our identities are shaken, often resulting in becoming a person we don’t like and someone misunderstood by others. With older folks, the changes tend to occur in more areas and often are dramatic.
Identity and Aging
As we age, our identity changes, despite the view of some who believe there is an unchangeable “core”; one that remains steady regardless of what happens to us and what we do. In an abstract sense, this belief may be true. But try convincing someone who has undergone dramatic changes of the concept’s practicality. Folks such as:
An active person who can’t participate in any of his favorite sports because of a less than successful hip replacement
A devoutly religious woman who learns her son was molested by their priest
A Fortune-500 executive who’s early-onset Alzheimer’s makes it difficult to count change for a dollar.
A Black man who was discriminated against his entire life listening to explanations of why voter rights laws are no longer necessary
An aging Jazz pianist who knows he doesn’t have enough time to become as innovative as Keith Jarrett.
What We Do
In 2012, I wrote, I’m Different: Illness-Based Identity, in which I described how identities are partially based on the activities we do. Sometimes the disruptions in our lives are dramatic, as when a heart attack results in lowered physical activity. But often it’s as subtle as when a person’s ability to knit dwindles after years of chronic and acute arthritis.
The Problem. Statistically, older people tend to become more ill, more fragile, and face more life-changing disabling conditions than younger people. The heart attack may not result in identity changes for someone who was sedentary, and the arthritis may be inconsequential for the person who occationally knits. But identity changes become dramatic for a life-long runner who had a heart attack and person who spends hours each day knitting.
We glide through our lives guided by “shouldisms” we believe are true, moral, ethical, or are in our self-interest. Regardless if these values are religious or non-sectarian, there is an assumption that not only are they important for the person who adheres to them, but should apply to everyone.
In a constantly changing world, these beliefs are not immune to assaults. When guidelines for how we conduct ourselves are under attack, we can choose to accommodate the changes, or fight to retain them. Regardless of the choice, the struggle affects our identity.
The Problem. To accept the changes means what we believed our entire lives may be false. To defend them adds a defensive layer to our persona that can be just as disruptive as accepting the changes, as evidenced by the conflicts generated by same-sex marriage laws, legalization of marijuana, or the election of a President whose ethnicity is denigrated, just to mention a few.
Our thinking is based on how we manage what we know. Without getting too technical, three major components of thinking are, short term memory, long term memory, and executive functioning.
Short term memory involves the ability to retrieve information about something that just happened—I want to make an omelet, and I need to retrieve the eggs I just bought and placed in the refrigerator.
Long term memory is short-term memory that moved to long-term memory after I slept—To make the omelet I’ll need to find the chili powder I placed on one of the pantry shelves last week.
Executive functioning is my ability to manipulate what is stored in short and long term memory—how to assemble all of the ingredients for an omelet, combining them to make a mixture I will place in a pan, and heating them for a set amount of time.
The Problem. Although each is independent, problems in short and long term memory are mistakenly thought to signal declining intelligence; a deterioration of executive functioning.
How we perceive the world determines how we interact with others. And our perceptions may be distorted by our history. For example, a holocaust survivor’s negative view of anything German in 2014, might have been indelibly etched in her mind in 1941.
The Problem. The more the experiences, the greater the possibility what we witness today is interpreted through what we experienced in our past. The longer we live, the greater the possibility our understanding of the present world will be shaped by our past.
Relationship to Death
While the world of a younger person is expanding, the world of elders is shrinking. Our abilities decline, friendships are lost through death, and there is the realization the time we have left is limited. The degree we accept the inevitability of death is the eight-hundred pound gorilla in the room, directing our everyday decisions as if it were “The Great Oz,” behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz.
The Problem. As our world contracts and changes, there is a need to grasp at what’s stable. For example, it can be the need for having dinner at the same time each day, or resistance to new forms of communication, such as texting on a smart-phone.
Aging is an inevitable and often frightening occurrence for those who experience it, and confusing for younger people who interact with those of us who live it. Many of the glib suggestions for how one can gracefully and joyfully become old, find little value for those of us who are dealing with it and those who are trying to be sensitive to our needs. But approaching aging from the perspective of a changing identity, results in a less glamorous by more realistic understanding of this normal and inevitable phenomenon. In Part II, next month, I’ll explore how those of us who are aging can do it more successfully and less painfully.
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(An Excerpt from Leaning Into Sharp Points). Change is analogous to a large boulder balanced on a precipice. It looks like it could tumble off the cliff if just a little pressure were applied. But despite your great effort, it won’t budge. The weight and inertia of the boulder prevent it from moving. And just as with the boulder, inertia prevents us and our loved ones from changing a behavior that’s been with us for a long time.
There is a story told of a dog lying on the front porch of a house and moaning loudly. Next to him sat an old man in a rocking chair, impassively whittling a piece of wood. A stranger came by and was amazed by the scene. He walked up to the porch to see what the problem was with the dog.
“Howdy,” he said to the old man.
“Howdy,” the old man responded, barely looking up from the piece of wood he was carving.
“I was wondering why your hound is yelping.”
“He’s lying on a nail,” the old man said, taking a puff on his corncob pipe.
“How long’s he been doing that?” the stranger asked.
“Oh, I reckon about eight hours.”
“Eight hours!” the shocked stranger said.
“Well why doesn’t he get off of it?”
The old man stopped whittling, took another puff on his pipe, and stroked his beard as if in deep thought. Then after a moment he looked up at the stranger. “I guess he forgot what it feels like not lying on it.”
We are all resistant to change, even when we say we are not. And just like that old hound dog, we fear change’s double-edged sword: giving up the known while simultaneously accepting the unknown. As a caregiver, change may be difficult for you and the loved one you’re caring for.
Your loved one is moving from independence to dependence, from health to illness, and from being in control to having little of it. You are about to give up significant parts of your life and substitute activities you never would have chosen if your loved one were healthier.
Both of you are moving from A to B: from what you were to what you are becoming. It’s a rootless psychological state that inevitably causes anxiety. There is discomfort in most transitions, sometimes even fear. You and your loved one will be moving from something you both know to something unknown to either of you. The discomfort can be reduced by holding on a little less tightly to what is familiar. Assume that many things in your and your loved one’s “pre-illness” life will lose their permanence and letting go of them may be the best way to keep what is important to you.
You can read more about the problems of change in Leaning Into Sharp Points: Practical Guidance and Nurturing Support for Caregivers.
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Posted in Aging and Illness, Grieving and Recovery
When I attended a workshop on the Native American flute (NAF), I didn’t realize that the lesson I would receive was one not only applicable to music but also to aging. “Play the contour of mountains,” the instructor said. “It will open up your music and let you hear the inherent melody of nature.” The technique involved playing notes as if they were following a mountain ridge: raise the notes as the ridge ascends, lower them as it descends, and adjust the duration of the notes by how long the elevation stays the same: short peak—short note, plateau—long note.
At sixty-seven, I would like to think I have the physical strength I had at forty-years-of-age. Unfortunately, I’m forced to confront my self-deception when I struggle to lift a single case of bottled water. Ten years ago I carried two at a time. Fifteen years ago I played four-wall-handball with guys in their thirties and was energized even after playing for two hours. Now, I look for men older than me, and I am thankful when I have the strength to play a second game. As a university professor, multi-tasking was a way of life, and I usually could anticipate what a student was asking after the first few words of a question. Now, holding onto a single thought can at times be challenging, and anticipation usually leads to awkward misinterpretations. These changes and many others are like that annoying person who you have avoided inviting to your party, shows up anyway, and after alienating everyone, announces she is your best friend.
It’s easy to accept aging when we think of it as something that will eventually happen. It even can be as humorous as a joke on Saturday Night Live or a self-deprecating scene on a television Sit-Com. But the humor evaporates when it moves from something that happens to other people, to what is happening to you. It becomes most poignant when it results in changing your identity.
Dynamics of Identity
Identities are based on how we view ourselves—our abilities, roles, values, needs, and beliefs—whether that person is Pope Benedict or me. While the components of our respective identity stews differ, the Pope and I face the same dilemma: change one significant thing and the flavor changes. Change too many things and what was minestrone soup becomes vichyssoise. Who we are consists of a complex amalgam that is unique, and like a good Texas chili, has no specific recipe. If unimportant components of our identity are lost, few things may change. Losing the ability to add numbers in my head is not significant since I can rely on a calculator or the bank teller. But I become a different person if I view the loss as an indispensable part of who I am. Hats off to the Pope for realizing the same thing.
We Are What We Do and Believe
Some people maintain that everyone has a “core” that never changes despite what we believe in or do. The reasoning goes like this: All we need to do is strip the non-essentials away, and there it is; our unchanging, universal soul. Ah, if life were only that simple. But we are what we do and believe. The person who was an acclaimed professional football player ten years ago is not the same person now as he experiences the cognitive problems associated with a brain injury. The husband who relied on his wife for being socially appropriate, is not the same person who now, without her, stubbles through cocktail parties always wondering if he’s being politically correct. And it’s a rare caregiver who views her chronically-ill husband in the same way she did when they were first married.
Probably, one of the most important ways of accepting aging, is to understand that changes in our identity will continue to occur, right up until we die. The Pope today is not who he was when elected by the College of Cardinals. And who we are today is not who we were five years ago, and not who we will become next year.
Identities are dynamic, ever-changing entities. As our minds and bodies wind down, death is no longer something on the distant horizon, but rather an approaching appointment. And that realization changes who we are. I applaud and marvel at the Pope’s decision. Here is a person who holds the most powerfully autocratic position in the world and could remain in it, without challenges until he dies. Yet he recognized that he can no longer function effectively because of aging. Maybe I can now graciously accept the 20-something’s offer to give me her seat on the bus.
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