Reaching old age

What does it feel like to be old?

What does it feel like to be old? Not middle-aged, or late-middle-aged, but one of the members of the fastest-growing group of people in Ireland. This is a question I have asked myself for the past couple of years, now that I am in that age group. The gradual loss of energy is one of the most unpleasant side effects of the aging process. The onslaught of old age diseases, the pain in your knees and hips are all the results of old age. The engine is wearing out and even though lucky that the mental capacity remains good. A lot of these infirmities can happen at any stage in life. Even a 30-year-old may complain that he no longer feels able to keep up with the younger guys at hurling or football.

Of course, no one should expect to be rushing around in their 70s like they did in their 20s, and yet the idea that energy levels drop as every year passes, rather like the gasoline dial on a long car journey, is misleading. In fact, many people make radical lifestyle changes in later life and find that they have as much energy as ever before.

The mind affects the body and the body affects the mind. If you keep telling yourself that you have no energy and can’t do this or that, do not be surprised if your body responds accordingly. Some people seem to take great pleasure in telling others how awful they feel or how much more energy they had when they were young. This is absurd. If you start to think old you will feel old. Do not say to yourself “well, now I have turned 40 I can no longer do X or Y”. It is as if people imagine that on the morning of their 70th or 80th birthday, they can no longer do what they did the day before. Do not bow to the tyranny of meaningless numbers. If you expect to feel more exhausted at 70 than at 69, then you will.

Finally, you must embrace the time in which you are living. The older people get more inclined to live in the past, to indulge in nostalgia and reminiscing about days gone by. They try and convince themselves that everything was better when they were children. Even people in their 40s and 50s do this. Convince yourself of such nonsense and what do you think will happen? Obviously, the present will seem flat, dull, and hardly worth bothering with, if your thoughts think that way. And once that happens, your motivation goes, taking your physical energy with it. Instead, remain curious, interested in life and have a positive input. Keep up with politics, fashion, scientific advances, technology and so on.

If you wish to boost your energy levels, you must first consider the way you live. What needs to be changed? The key to boosting your energy is improving everything: diet, sleep patterns, exercise regime, and even outlook.  Do not overestimate how healthy you are. We have all been guilty of wishful thinking on occasion. Sometimes we will catch ourselves thinking about a perfect future, or be looking back on things that happened through rose-tinted glasses.

This is a perfectly normal and healthy activity and one that can help to make the world seem a little more tolerable even when things aren’t going according to plan. The key is that we need to remain at least somewhat detached from this wishful thinking. In other words, we need to take it for what it is and acknowledge that it is not reality.  When predicting future outcomes, all of us are prone to be somewhat overly positive. This is sometimes explained as being due to an attempt to resolve the ‘conflict’ between what we want and what we know to be true.  However, it can also be described as our egocentrism, our belief that the world revolves around us – partly as a result of perspective, and as a coping mechanism to help us deal with negative realities.

The brain is a prediction machine and its purpose is to help us make the best decisions in order to increase our likelihood of survival and of passing on our genetic plusses to the next generation. This starts when we imagine the outcome we want: we want the political climate to improve, we want to be rich, we don’t want to become ill.

If we were to assume the worst and to assume that we would have no impact on future outcomes, then we would not be motivated to continue or to make positive changes in our lives. Likewise, if we were unable to imagine the future we wanted, then we would be unable to plot a course to help us achieve the best outcomes for ourselves.

Wishful thinking is not a problem in itself but can be problematic if it isn’t kept under control. As we have seen, it is normal, healthy and adaptive to spend time imagining better outcomes for ourselves and it can even be healthy under some circumstances to deny reality. There is no harm in indulging yourself in a little wishful thinking from time to time and especially once you understand the mechanisms that give rise to it. What’s important though is that you recognize it for what it is and that you always take a reality check before making any important life decisions. Positivity is a good thing but not to the point of self-delusion!

Old age will come either you like it or not, and you are lucky to have reached a long life spanning many decades. Live every day,  as each day is precious and will never return. Getting to old age has many benefits. Make good use of them. You are worth it.

Peg Hanafin, MSc 18/5/2018