6 min read
Our own beliefs about what it means to grow older play a big role in the way we approach the transitions of the second half of life.
-Dr. Jason Holland, Lifespark
Ultimately, these core beliefs about ourselves and the world serve as a scaffolding for finding meaning in the second half of life. And just like any structure—whether physical or mental—it may be strong and resilient to stress, or shaky and vulnerable.
According to geriatric researcher and therapist, Dr. Ken Laidlaw, and his colleagues, there are basically 5 unique forces that shape our core beliefs as we get older.
Here’s a description of these forces and how each can be a boon or a barrier to you in finding your identity in an ever changing world.
Each of us grew up with values and attitudes that were uniquely embedded within a particular time and place. Someone who grew up during the ‘Great Depression’ in 1930’s America, for example, might come to embrace frugality as a fundamental part of his or her self-identity.
Likewise, many ‘Baby Boomers’ (born between 1946-1964) developed a deep-rooted suspicion of large institutions and big government after the Vietnam War. And for ‘Gen-Xers’(born between 1965-1984) who grew up in a time when divorce rates were high, values like family and work-life balance are likely to rank as highly important.
These generational beliefs and values are often benign and only become problematic when they’re rigidly clung to or clouded with pervasive negativity. Older people brought up in times of sacrifice and self-reliance, for example, may believe that no matter how much pain they’re in, they should simply ‘Grin and bear it’ and ‘Not make a fuss,’ making it harder to ask for help in times of genuine need.
As we accumulate life experiences, it’s natural to want to share the skills and wisdom we’ve accumulated with the fresh faces of tomorrow. When older and younger people are able to bridge the generation gap and connect in meaningful ways, anything is possible. But nothing truly important is easy
Communicating with someone of a different generation can be a bit like talking with someone from another culture. A lot can get lost in translation, and when conflicts inevitably arise, it can be a source of great stress and angst in an older person’s life.
Conflicts between adult children and their older parents often center on differences in beliefs about religion, politics, lifestyle issues, and the best way to raise children. And at their core, these conflicts often represent a clash of generational beliefs, all of which play out in real-time as society and cultural norms wax and wane.
If you find yourself in such a generational conflict, it can be helpful to do some work on clarifying your values and finding ways to express them in fresh ways that are less likely to trigger the same old tired conflicts.
As we get older, our roles in life inevitably change. These transitions might be anticipated, like becoming empty-nesters or retiring. But others may represent unexpected or unwelcome change, like getting divorced later in life or developing a chronic illness.
For the most part, older people tend to be fairly resilient (from a psychological perspective) even in the face of significant change. But these difficult life transitions can still put a strain on our sense of self, as we’re propelled into a world that forces us to reinvent ourselves and step out of familiar comfort zones.
If you’re having trouble coping with a recent change in your life, see if there are creative ways you can harness the flexibility of your mind and integrate these difficult events into your life story, preferably in a way that ultimately allows for a purposeful and hopeful path forward.
With age comes increased risk for a number of illnesses, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and dementia. And there is a significant sense of loss that can occur with such changes in health. People often grieve the loss of having full mobility or the loss of a planned future that is perhaps now less clear.
Even if someone is generally in good health, the existential threat of these health problems weighs on us as we get older. Conversations in one’s social circle begin to center on doctor visits and new medications. And eventually, we begin to say goodbye to the ones we love.
Our own beliefs about what it means to grow older play a big role in the way we approach the transitions of the second half of life. For some older adults, restrictive and ageist views are internalized—like “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” or “Old people have terrible memory”—which can act as a self-fulfilling prophecy and subtly undermine confidence in one’s own abilities.
If you find that your negative self-talk is your own worst enemy, look for ways to build greater self-compassion and keep your inner critic in check.
Tuesday’s essay explores how to make the most of life and express what’s really important to the ones you love.
Then on Wednesday you can take the quiz and find out to what extent you’ve made sense of the most difficult transitions in your life.
On Thursday, we take a look at the benefits of volunteer work in the second half of life and discuss potential pitfalls to volunteering and ways to overcome them.
We then end the week on Friday with an essay on anxiety about illness and death and how it plays out across different stages of life.
So come back every day this week for more on finding meaning in the second half of life. And in the comments below, tell us what growing older has taught you about the meaning of life.
Holland, J. M., Graves, S., Klingspon, K. L., & Rozalski, V. (2016). Prolonged grief symptoms related to loss of physical functioning: examining unique associations with medical service utilization. Disability and Rehabilitation, 38, 205-210.
Laidlaw, K., Thompson, L. W., & Gallagher-Thompson, D. (2004). Comprehensive conceptualization of cognitive behaviour therapy for late life depression. Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 32, 389-399.
Ong, A. D., Bergeman, C. S., Bisconti, T. L., & Wallace, K. A. (2006). Psychological resilience, positive emotions, and successful adaptation to stress in later life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 730-749.
6 min read
This essay on life lessons learned from the Kafka Museum and making the most of the rest of your life was originally published in ‘Aging Wisely. Wisdom of Our Elders’ edited by Irving Silverman and Ellen Beth Siegel and is republished in Lifespark Weekly with permission from the editors.
As a clinician and a human being, I’ve found that one of the most common concerns people express is that they will in some way fail to fulfill their true destiny, neglect their most authentic passions, or fall short of their full potential in life.
-Dr. Jason Holland, Lifespark
Aside from reading a few pages of Metamorphosis (one of his most popular works) and watching a few minutes of Jeremy Iron’s 1991 portrayal of the man, I really didn’t know much about Kafka. But I entered with open mind and heart to pay homage to this soul who inspired so many.
The museum was truly a tribute to Kafka’s worldview, displaying rows of softly lit file drawers, interspersed with open, glass-covered drawers that contained pictures, handwritten notes, and other memorabilia from his life. This arrangement was perhaps a nod to Kafka’s “double-life,” as he put it, working in an office setting as an insurance attorney, by day, and writing mind-bending masterpieces, by night.
This frustration between the bureaucratic and mundane existence of Kafka’s everyday life, coupled with his passion for free thought and self-expression, haunted him until his death from tuberculosis in 1924 at the age of 40. In his last letter, however, he seemed to gain some insight into this tension, which most often played out in long-standing conflicts with his father and the traditional values that he represented. As he began to soften toward his father, Kafka had a vision of a wall. But it was no longer seen as an impediment. He wrote, “It is not a shady wall; it is life, dear, sweet life pressed into wall form.” Kafka could then see a “city in the distance” but has the sense that somehow he has arrived too early.
As a clinician and a human being, I’ve found that one of the most common concerns people express, both at younger and older life stages, is that they will in some way fail to fulfill their true destiny, neglect their most authentic passions, or fall short of their full potential in life. Like Kafka, they fear that they’ll arrive too early at the city in the distance and leave something in their life unfinished, unsaid, or unresolved.
In other words, it’s a form of therapy that gets people to talk about the aspects of their lives that are most important. These conversations can cover a range of topics, but particularly at the end-of-life, they often center on those things that feel most unfinished, unsaid, or unresolved.
The ultimate aim of the therapy is to give people the space to have honest dialogue about what matters most to them and to record the lessons learned from a life for future generations. Since these topics are often emotionally charged and difficult to discuss, having some organization and structure, like in Dignity Therapy, is useful. Though initially developed for dying patients with a foreshortened future, the prompts and questions used in Dignity Therapy could be tremendously valuable for any person regardless of how long (or short) their future is perceived to be.
Typically, a skilled interviewer will walk patients and their family through the Dignity Therapy protocol. And it’s worth noting here, that it’s only in this structured and manualized form that Dignity Therapy has been shown to improve mental health outcomes. Nevertheless, readers may still wish to consider the questions that are raised in Dignity Therapy, by themselves or with close confidants, simply for their own personal edification.
Pretend that this is the only moment that you have to say it to them. Tomorrow or even in 10 minutes, it may be too late.
How might you phrase it to them in a way that minimizes any perceived risks and maximizes possibilities for connection and understanding?
Based on those lessons, what words of wisdom or advice do you have for the people in your life and for future generations? Some of these may be hard lessons, and careful phrasing of the message is crucial, especially if you plan to deliver it to an audience of more than one.
If you had to write your own eulogy today, what would you most want people to know about you? What have you stood for in your life? What stories and personal experiences best illustrate the values you have embodied during your time on planet Earth?
The answers to such questions are, of course, highly subjective and personal. However, I believe the goal is the same for all travelers. We must not leave anything on the table. Or else, like Kafka, we may arrive at our city in the distance before our time.
So, considering the themes raised here, what do you most want to say to the people that you care about? Tell us in the comments below.
2 min read
And research findings suggest that the way that you make sense of these jagged edges in your life story has important implications for stress and health.
In one study with late-middle age and older adults exhibiting signs of depression, my colleagues and I asked people to describe the life event or experience that was currently most distressing for them.
Some wrote about recent life stressors, like coping with a new health diagnosis or having lost a loved one. Others focused on more long-standing concerns, such as conflict with an adult child or caregiving for a relative with chronic illness.
Notably, the extent to which a stressful life event was rated as ‘comprehensible’ within the larger frame of their life story ended up being a more reliable predictor of stress hormones than the severity of their current depression symptoms.
So, do you want to find out if you’ve made sense of a difficult life experience in your life? Take the quiz below and learn more about where you’re at in your journey and how you can smooth out the rough edges of your life story.
And let us know what you learn in the comments section!
Holland, J. M., Currier, J. M., Coleman, R. A., & Neimeyer, R. A. (2010). The Integration of Stressful Life Experiences Scale (ISLES): Development and initial validation of a new measure. International Journal of Stress Management, 17, 325-352.
Holland, J. M., Rengifo, J., Currier, J. M., O’Hara, R., Sudheimer, K., & Gallagher-Thompson, D. (2014). Psychosocial predictors of salivary cortisol among older adults with depression. International Psychogeriatrics, 26, 1531-1539.
2 min read
The best way to overcome barriers to volunteering is to find opportunities that are a good match, not only with regard to your interests and passions, but also in terms of your lifestyle.
-Dr. Jason Holland, Lifespark
But volunteer work is not only good medicine for the soul; it’s also extremely good for your health.
Here are just a few of the many benefits of volunteer work in later life:
The best way to overcome these barriers is to find volunteer opportunities that are a good match, not only with regard to your interests and passions, but also in terms of your lifestyle.
Some factors to consider are:
Established non-profit organizations that coordinate these volunteer activities offer a wide variety of opportunities to accommodate people with busy schedules and other limitations.
For international options, Give a Day Global helps match people to volunteer opportunities all across the world, so even on your vacation you can devote one day of your trip to supporting a worthy community cause.
In the comments below, tell us about your experiences with volunteering. How did it enrich your life? What barriers did you encounter? How did you deal with them?
Jenkinson, C. E., Dickens, A. P., Jones, K., Thompson-Coon, J., Taylor, R. S., Rogers, M., … & Richards, S. H. (2013). Is volunteering a public health intervention? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the health and survival of volunteers. BMC Public Health, 13, 773.
Mojza, E. J., & Sonnentag, S. (2010). Does volunteer work during leisure time buffer negative effects of job stressors? A diary study. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 19, 231-252.
Mojza, E. J., Sonnentag, S., & Bornemann, C. (2011). Volunteer work as a valuable leisure‐time activity: A day‐level study on volunteer work, non‐work experiences, and well‐being at work. Journal of occupational and organizational psychology, 84(1), 123-152.
Morrow-Howell, N., Hinterlong, J., Rozario, P. A., & Tang, F. (2003). Effects of volunteering on the well-being of older adults. The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 58, S137-S145.
8 min read
As friends and confidants across a lifetime begin to disappear, and one’s own health…is compromised, people still often seem to find creative and inspiring ways to accommodate the ‘new normal’ that multiple losses impose.
-Dr. Jason Holland, Lifespark
This essay on anxiety about illness and death as we get older was originally published in ‘Aging Wisely. Wisdom of Our Elders’ edited by Irving Silverman and Ellen Beth Siegel and is republished in Lifespark Weekly with permission from the editors.
From a developmental perspective, though, older adults tend to report less of it than others. Many indicate that they have simply accepted death, or have come to terms with it in some way. And that certainly makes a good deal of sense. Much more so than for other age groups, older individuals are likely to have experienced multiple losses. Particularly among those in senior living environments, the death of friends, neighbors, and family members can become a regular affair.
At the level of thoughts and emotions, however, the picture becomes a bit more complex. Here, we find that the threat of repeated losses, whether of the interpersonal or health-related kind, can bring about major adjustments in coping. Remarkably, as friends and confidants across a lifetime begin to disappear, and one’s own health condition and ability to perform daily tasks is compromised, people still often seem to find creative and inspiring ways to accommodate the ‘new normal’ that multiple losses impose. They may appropriately adjust their expectations or goals, as a way of developing a healthy acceptance of personal limitations. For many, there may also be a greater propensity to look for the silver lining in stressful life events or even find some paradoxical and bittersweet humor in them.
Although the existence of the positivity effect has been confirmed in multiple studies, its origins are still a source of great debate. Is it primarily due to neurological changes associated with aging? Or is there more of a psychosocial process going on—a kind of learning that takes place leading one to conclude that life is short and we must look for the good in every moment? As a clinical psychologist, I am naturally biased toward the latter interpretation.
Roger was among these men and women that I encountered in hospice . At age 67, he was diagnosed with lymphoma, and his health went steadily downhill from there. However, he still showed strong signs of life, even after learning that he likely had six months or less to live. I would find him outside gathered with other patients smoking cigarettes, absorbed in conversation. He became a very popular guy on the unit. Though eventually confined to a wheelchair, he remained a significant presence, whether he was joking around in the hallway or rounding up a group for a spontaneous ice cream social.
Still, Roger raised concerns among many of the staff. He seemed to completely ignore his impending death. His remaining family only came to visit sporadically, seemingly because he preferred not to tell them just how dire his situation had become. Even though doctors and nurses explained to him numerous times that his condition was terminal and likely to progress quickly, it wasn’t even entirely clear if Roger himself had fully digested that information. In fact, he was once overheard explaining on the phone that he was feeling much better now and likely to be released from the hospital soon.
He must have known it before I even walked through the door. Without breaking his gaze from the television hanging above his hospital bed, Roger cut to the chase. “I’m not going to talk about it,” he said to me in a matter-of-fact tone.
My first reaction was to do what many therapists probably would in that moment. Rolling with the resistance, as some might say, I nudged him to go just a few inches further. “That’s fair. I’m not going to make you talk about anything you don’t want to. What would it be like, though, to have an honest conversation with me about it—about what’s going on with your health? What do you think might happen?”
I had tried those therapist tricks on him before, and he saw it coming from a mile away. He looked me in the eyes and calmly but firmly asserted, “You can stay here and watch football with me in my room if you want, Doc. But if you keep pushing on this, I’m going to have to ask you to get out of here.” I hadn’t yet earned my Ph.D. and appreciated the vote of confidence. With little other choice, I opted for football.
As I sat down, I realized it actually wasn’t a live football game but instead one of those NFL documentaries showing all of the glorious highlights of Super Bowl past. A scene from Super Bowl XXXIV played on the screen. It was an epic matchup between the Tennessee Titans and St. Louis Rams that was played only 30 days into the new millennium. Befitting of the first Super Bowl of the 21st century, the game ended with a miraculous, game-winning play by the Rams’ defense that has since been labeled “The Tackle.” Watching it for the first time in nearly ten years, I instinctively winced. Surprised by my reaction, Roger leaned over and asked, “Are you a football fan, Doc?”
I was (and remain) a football fan and remembered that Super Bowl very clearly. I grew up in Tennessee and had only recently moved to the West Coast to finish up my schooling. Like most Tennesseans on January 30th of 2000, I was at home with my family watching the game. Our eyes were glued to the television set, as the Tennessee Titan’s quarterback, Steve McNair, took the final snap and completed a pass to Kevin Dyson only two yards away from the goal line and a Super Bowl win.
Suddenly, I found myself on my feet acting the scene out in front of his hospital bed as though it were a private stage. Using the curtain as a makeshift goal line, I reenacted Kevin Dyson’s valiant but failed effort to reach the end zone and stretched my arms forward, holding an imaginary football that fell just inches short of its target. “It was absolute pandemonium in my house,” I explained. Contorting my face to convey the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” that took over my family that night, we burst into a spontaneous fit of laughter. And for a brief moment, I wasn’t a therapist and he wasn’t a terminally-ill patient. We connected as human beings in a way that seemed to transcend the bleached walls of the hospital room.
His designated guardian was notified that death was imminent. As friends and family gathered around his bedside, there were tearful remembrances of Roger, intermixed with expressions of surprise and confusion about his choice to minimize his condition for so long. If only he knew our thoughts and could feel what we feel now, surely he would have made a different decision and been more forthcoming. At least, that was the assumption at the time.
But, that is an assumption of the living and the healthy. Although I imagine myself approaching my own death in a different way, I’m also hyper-aware of the fact that a ‘good death’ is highly subjective, not too unlike a ‘good life.’ What Roger knew, that no one else seemed to fully appreciate, is that he had made up his mind a long time ago about what he wanted to stand for and value in his life as well as in his death. He couldn’t be burdened with more bad news about his health. He was too busy connecting with other people and bringing out the best of them, just as he did with me that day in his hospital room.
Thinking about his friends and family holding hands and singing songs around his bedside, I wonder, “What would I want people to say about me on my deathbed?” Or put another way, what do I really want to stand for in this world? The answer is always a moving target. I never quite get there, falling inches short of the goal no matter how far I stretch my arms forward. Still, somewhere deep inside, I find a voice that tells me to keep pushing forward anyway, no matter how much the odds seem to be stacked against me.
Addis, D. R., Leclerc, C. M., Muscatell, K. A., & Kensinger, E. A. (2010). There are age-related changes in neural connectivity during the encoding of positive, but not negative, information. Cortex, 46, 425-433.
Brandtstädter, J., & Renner, G. (1990). Tenacious goal pursuit and flexible goal adjustment: Explication and age-related analysis of assimilative and accommodative strategies of coping. Psychology and Aging, 5, 58-67.
Reed, A. E., Chan, L., & Mikels, J. A. (2014). Meta-analysis of the age-related positivity effect: age differences in preferences for positive over negative information. Psychology and Aging, 29, 1-15.
Rehmert, A. E., & Kisley, M. A. (2013). Can older adults resist the positivity effect in neural responding? The impact of verbal framing on event-related brain potentials elicited by emotional images. Emotion, 13, 949-959.
Thorson, J. A., & Powell, F. C. (2000). Death anxiety in younger and older adults. In A. Tomer (Ed.), Death attitudes and the older adult: Theories, concepts, and applications (pp. 123-136). New York, NY, US: Brunner-Routledge.
Sneed, J. R., & Whitbourne, S. K. (2001). Identity processing styles and the need for self-esteem in middle-aged and older adults. The International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 52, 311-321.