Ageing… We Never “Arrive”

When I was in my late teens or twenties I heard a program on Radio 4 which focused on the experiences of people in their seventies. It was one of a series of programmes looking at how we navigate the decades of our lives. I didn’t hear the rest of the series, but very much wish I had.

In the programme much of the discussion centered around downsizing and options related to how people would prepare for the onset of old age and the possibility that they may not want, or be able, to live independently. I was struck at the time (when I was putting all my efforts into building an education, a career and hopefully a family in the future) by the intensity of experience of the septuagenarians. The aspect I recall most clearly was a lady selling the family home and being faced with the daunting prospect of choosing a couple of bits of furniture that would fit into her residential care accommodation. I assumed that her husband had died and she was carefully disposing of the material legacy of their life, in preparation for the challenges of loving a materially (and perhaps emotionally) smaller life on her own.

As I write, I ask myself what exactly was so poignant and memorable about that lady’s experience. I feel I can define the two aspects which stayed with me:1 – We never ‘arrive’. 2 – The complexity and emotional intensity of the journey doesn’t lessen.

So – did gaining a partial understanding of these two points when I was setting out on life have an effect? I’m drawn to saying no. But actually I feel somehow it did. Somewhere I think I realised that it will never be over, that there will always be a need to live to the best of my ability and to cope with the up, down and side-sizing that a long life would demand. I wonder whether the lady on the radio gave me something, by example, which was life-changing? If I knew the sofa was going to have to go one day, could the felt tip scrawled on it now be quite so important? If the box of photos and that special ring or necklace were all I would keep, did it matter how much I had in the mid-term? If memories of picnics gone by would be cherished more than what happened yesterday, should I really prioritise cleaning the house before we go?

I have had the honour to work with ladies and gentlemen in and around their seventies. What has struck me is a) how selfless their generation can be, and b) how unforgiving they can be of themselves. They will sometimes recount a harsh line overheard or criticism made in childhood, or a chance remark made by a ‘friend’ thirty years ago. For all that they may have given to others or shouldered alone they often retain harsh views about themselves which I strongly maintain should never have been there and were never fair.

Challenging deep-seated, unkind assumptions makes a huge difference to all of us, at any stage of our lives and I think has the same beneficial impact at 7, 17 or 70 – after all it’s never over and we have to limber up for the joy and the challenges which lie ahead…

How do we work out when enough has become enough? And how do we tell someone we care about that we’re worried?

This is an impossible question to answer and the hardest part can often be defining enough of WHAT? Sometimes depression, anxiety and low mood have understandable causes – bereavement, relationship breakdown, illness, work difficulties, bullying etc.. However, on many occasions the reasons are not so obvious and we struggle to acknowledge how low we feel because we can’t define a precise reason as to WHY? We know our mood is low and that life has become difficult, but we don’t feel that the reasons are valid enough. We compare our pain to those in worse situations and decide it’s our fault, we need to muscle through and kick ourselves up the bum… again… and again… and again.

To help decide whether enough has really become enough, here are 10 pointers:

  1. It’s becoming difficult to remember when we last genuinely laughed.
  2. There are too many moments when we wish we’d been a bit more patient/kind/engaged/not angry.
  3. We’ve avoided social situations which we’d usually jump at.
  4. The hours awake in the night are getting longer.
  5. The comfort behaviours feel like they might be the only thing keeping us on track (booze, food, exercise, sex, gambling…).
  6. We don’t know what to say to anybody any more, it doesn’t seem to make any difference and we feel like we’re moaning.
  7. We’d rather not go out.
  8. Not being around doesn’t seem that bad, in fact it’s starting to seem easier.
  9. There’s not very much to like about ourselves any more.
  10. We’re starting to admit that kicking ourselves up the bum isn’t working, however hard we try.

If you recognise more of these than you like, allow yourself to take action. The root causes may be obvious or not, but the effect on you and those around you is the same – you deserve to live as well as you can and sometimes this means external help.

Please don’t put off until next year what you could do today. And if you’re in the delicate position of watching someone else put it off, show them this blog and say I asked you to. It’s not an insult or a criticism, it’s because you care.