Each year makes me more aware of distinct choices for living with aging. One choice is to welcome the inertia of reduced energy and meager responsibility: Make no non-medical commitments that can’t be easily broken, avoid engaging in reading or interacting with anything or anyone that is mentally challenging, make exercise a matter easily dismissed, disengage from issues beyond my constricted circle of activity, ignore activities that excited me in the past, rationalize and excuse indulgences, become gradually more secluded except for being merely a spectator.
In this mode, lethargy spreads like spilled syrup on a pantry shelf: invasive and hard to get rid of; the mind and body become dull and sluggish.
Another response to aging is to keep adapting so that my essential self is not lost. Not just living until I die, but staying lively till I die. This is where meaning-purpose is relevant. Meaning-purpose energizes. (I use the hyphenated term to suggest a connection like two sides of the same coin. For many of us, “meaning” connotes static essence, while “purpose” connotes action. Think of the one term as the blend of two aspects.)
Aging often moves us beyond roles in which we found satisfying meaning-purpose. Sometimes it is retirement from important work, or children growing beyond the need for care, or physical decline, or loss of access to people in whose company we most liked ourselves, or…you have your own list. The changes affect not only our external routines, but also the way we see ourselves and relate to ourselves.
How to regain the sense of being alive? We think of times when we were fully engaged in an activity that we could do well, that we enjoyed, that resulted in something we wanted to happen, that fitted with who we are. Then we remember how it felt: fullness of energy, ability to think what came next, alive!
Next, we tease out all the skills and attributes that we expressed in doing what made us feel alive. We may notice instincts for mentoring, or being a catalyst for productivity, or nurturing cooperation between antagonists, or engendering camaraderie among mere acquaintances, or problem solving, or having empathy, or organizing people to do complicated tasks, or encouraging love for excellence, or sharing resources, or seeing new solutions, or giving hopeful perspective; the list is longer than my imagination. We may be surprised at the complexity and range of what we know how to do with excellence.
The next step: look for a place to express the essential self. This can be difficult in a culture that pays closest attention to youthfulness. However, we keep in mind that all the wisdom and skill we possess is something sorely needed somewhere by someone. When we get frustrated or confused or disrespected, we pause and remember the energy and satisfaction of our best moments. We try again. We find places to live out who we are to the fullest. We find ourselves staying alive.
As a minister, family therapist, and addiction therapist, Clay conducted groups for over two decades designed to facilitate positive change in attitude and behavior. In 2008 Clay published a book entitled Older, Wiser…HAPPIER: 10 Choices for Rebooting Your Life at 50+. Since his retirement to Loveland in 2012, Clay has continued to provide pro bono workshops on aging issues.